Volume Five, December 2004

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College English Language Teaching (CELT) in China has progressed rapidly and achieved much success in recent years. Today, college graduates’ abilities to use English have greater improved than a decade ago, which is the result of efforts by the majority of the teachers and the education departments in charge. Meanwhile, however, we should realize there exist problems, such as “high grades, low ability” of the graduates, who are able to pass English examinations with high grades, but actually poor at using the language, especially at listening and speaking even though having spent enormous amount of time on it. Thus it is essential that we make a serious study on the current situation of foreign language education and find out causes and countermeasures in various aspects.
Fundamentally speaking, to reform CET Band IV and Band VI is one of the main countermeasures to improve the qualities of CELT. College English is one of the required courses in curricula for most college students in China. CET Band IV and VI, offered by the State Education Commission, for the purpose of carrying out the China’s National College English Syllabus and improving the quality of CELT, began in 1987. It is now the most important foreign language testing on an unprecedented scale in China. There is no denying the fact that CET Band IV and VI play an important role in improving the English of the whole college students, even the whole society’s English and it has applied, to a certain degree, positive force in CELT in China.

More and more colleges have attached greater importance to the foreign language certificate that the normal CELT has changed for the purpose of testing which has brought unexpected negative effect on CELT. Even worst, it has become an obstacle of CELT in China.
First, it is the system. China is a big country where the situations in each college vary greatly, such as the levels of students enrolled, the teaching levels of teachers and the schooling managements. So it is not a scientific method to judge the English level of students by only one model of testing in the whole country, which is bound to result in the education for the purpose of testing. Because of the only one form of the testing for all students in the whole country, the passing rate of CET Band IV is pursued by every university or college, which consequently affects the normal teaching activities. As a result, students spend much of their time preparing the testing and teachers make every effort on the passing rate of their students, especially, in many colleges where students’ testing results of Band IV are connected with the possibility of granting the degree to the students and the evaluation of teachers’ achievements, which add fuel to the flames of teaching for the purpose of testing.
Secondly, it is testing itself. We know that a testing is an important part of teaching process. It is believed that both testing and teaching are so closely interrelated that it is virtually impossible to work in either field without being constantly concerned with the other.1 Teaching and learning need to be checked and evaluated. As a method of check and evaluation, a kind of scientific and reasonable testing can play a positive role in teaching; otherwise it may turn out negative effect.
Since CET Band IV and Band VI began in 1987, though the testing form has been changed to a certain extent, it mainly tests students' capacity of language knowledge and grammar with mono-form and lacking of overall items, neglecting their communicative competence in practice, which is not in keeping with the developing direction of ELT. At present, there are more than 6 billion students participating CET Band IV and Band VI in China every year, most of whom have passed. But in reality, even though they have received the certificate Band IV or Band VI, many students are still unable to use English in speaking or writing fluently and skillfully, which clearly shows some shortcomings of the present kind of testing.
Widdowson said that “usage” is the language user’s knowledge of linguistics, and “use” is the user’s ability to use his knowledge of linguistic rules to perform effective communication.2 Language learner must learn both “usage” and “use”, the latter being much more important. The goal of FLT must be communication, that is, the use of the language.3 We need good English users, not best examination takers or certificate holders. Yet the current examination system achieves only the latter. So the importance should be given to the aim of reaching communicative competence (College English Syllabus ) in testing.

CET needs reforming. But how to do it? In my view, first, a criterion of different English language competence for college students should be determined and then different levels of testing in accordance with different competence of students need to be set. It is unreasonable to have formed the present levels in accordance with semesters. Because the students’ levels and the teaching levels vary in universities and colleges though they have the same semesters, which cannot be made a clean cut. It is unnecessary to require every university or college to have a same testing policy for English capacity. It is urgent for the education department in charge to set up a testing policy for different standard of English competence and teaching as well. Every university or college can choose different level testing according to its own situation.
Secondly, the new CET should adopt a new form, guided by the advanced and modern language testing theories, which can check and evaluate a person’s communicative competence of the language overall and comprehensively. The new CET should have following features:
1. It is a testing of a student’s language competence including listening, speaking, reading and writing. The lack of one of the four skills is unreasonable. The communicative competence should be embodied in the testing.
2. The goal of the testing should be put on how students use the language, which tests the true levels of the students.
3. The testing methods should be perfect, which can ensure its stability, reliability, justness and uniformity.
4. The results of the testing should be instructive, reflecting what each of the students can do in reality. The present Band IV and Band VI in accordance with semesters cannot reflect the graded English competence of the students.
5. As a testing method of China’s CELT, the design of a testing should fully consider China’s current system and requirement of ELT, as well as the demands of various levels for talents in the social development.
Finally, different teaching methods should be used according to student’s different levels and needs.4 Graded CELT may be a better way for teaching and learning. Graded CELT means arranging classes according to the English levels of the students, preparing lessons for the class level, and adopting appropriate teaching methods in class. If a teacher doesn’t know his or students’ actual abilities, levels and backgrounds, no matter how warm-hearted he is his aimless instruction will miss the point. The advantages of graded teaching are as follows:

Graded teaching can fully arouse students’ enthusiasm of English learning.
In large mixed classes, relatively few students who are lower students feel empowered to participate actively and their status relationships tend to freeze. Research studies indicate that small classes make it possible for isolates to become part of the classroom community. By graded teaching, teachers can teach students in accordance with their aptitude and adjust teaching methodology at any time. Students can complete their learning task within the fixed time. Under such circumstances, students, having ease of mind, can learn English passively and intuitively. Thus, both of the problems of the students “being overfed” and “being hungry” in learning can be solved.

Graded teaching can lead to competition in learning.
The graded teaching can become elastic teaching. After a period of time learning, students can be readjusted by testing. Those who are excellent can be adjusted to a higher graded class, while those who cannot catch up, to a lower one. It is not restricted by semesters. Regular adjustment can bring students a kind of energy as well as a motive force to improve study.

The ultimate goal of Foreign Language Teaching is to let students know how to use the language. The purpose of English Language Testing is to examine whether students can use the language and how they use it. So correct inferences can be drawn from careful analysis. In other words, Language competence is reflected only by language use. Whether a kind of testing really tests the language competence of a student, it should be decided to what extent it let the student participate in the process of the language use. Therefore, a new testing must give prominence to the reflection of the language use. In addition, for most Chinese the aim of mastering English is to use it as a tool of studying, working and external contacts. It is necessary that using a foreign language deal with cross-cultural elements. So a new testing should especially examine students’ language competence of the cross-cultural communication.

1 Heaton, J.B. Writing English Language Tests. (London: Longman, 1988), 5.
2 In Malmkjr, K. (Ed.). Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The Linguistics Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 1991), 458.
3 Widdowson, H.G. An example of combining structural approach and communicative approach (Tang Chunhua, trans. ELT in Foreign Countries (1994) 7.
4 China’s National College English Syllabus. (Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 1998).

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