In School in Germany: English Exams

 

To start off this entry, here is a question for all educators teaching foreign languages: Does your school offer foreign language proficiency exams? If so, for which grades (Germ.: Klasse) and what do these exams consist of?  For those who do not have a foreign language exam, should schools offer it and if yes, for which foreign languages and why?

As part of the European Union, it is expected that students learn at least English and French in addition to their native language. Germany is no exception as the two languages are stressed in the classroom as early as possible. And with that, tests (sometimes with certificates) are administered to test the knowledge of the foreign language as well as the skills developed during their time in school and later in college- namely, listening, reading, oral, and written. Grammar serves as a bridge connecting these skills and is only taught and tested in the classroom.

I have had the privilege to participate in every single English proficiency exam, both as an administrator as well as an observer, looking at the degree of difficulty, the structure and other elements that are either beneficial or a setback to the success of the students. In other words, I have been around the block. For teachers who are about to enter the field of foreign languages at school or at the university, and for students who are going to school or to the university in Germany, here are the exams that you will most likely expect to face while in Germany. Please keep in mind, these exams are meant to foster the development of the students and are not meant to pass or fail them, yet there are some differences that you should keep in mind, speaking from experience.

Besondere Leistungsfeststellung (BLF):  This exam was introduced in 2004 in response to the massacre that had occurred at the Guttenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt two years earlier. There, the person instigating the shooting spree (where 16 people were killed before he took his own life), left school without a degree, one of many reasons for his revenge. The massacre resulted in massive reforms in the education system and with that, the introduction of stringent requirements, including the BLF Exam. This exam can be found in Thuringia, Hesse and Saxony, but will most likely be found in other German states in the future. The BLF applies to subjects in German, Math, Science and a Foreign Language, in particular, English.  Students in the tenth grade are required to take the BLF exam and have the entire year to prepare for it through classes and other work. This includes a year of intensive English classes, where they have the opportunity to focus on current events and cultural issues and improve on their writing, reading, listening and speaking skills.  When the exam occurs close to the end of the school year, students are assigned to their examiners, and the dates are chosen by the administrators. Most of the time, they will be assigned in groups of two or three and are given 30 minutes of preparation time before the exam, as they will be given a topic to do their presentation in. These topics are sometimes based on their preferences in the class, so one can expect a presentation on US culture-related themes, for example because of their preference.

The exam is orally based and consists of three parts: The first part is small talk, where the examiner asks the students some questions about school life, their future and their favorite interests. The second part features a presentation from each student of the group of 2-3, based on the topic given for preparing. And in the third part, the students are given a scene where they play out a scene. The exam takes 30 minutes and students are given a grade in the end. That grade will represent half of the total grade for the subject for that particular year.  Judging by the observations, students taking this exam are more flexible in the first part than in the rest as they have the ability to use the vocabulary and speak freely than in the other two parts. Most mistake-prone is in the second part with the presentations, where they are forced to stick to the topic and use the vocabulary pertaining to it. Add the grammar to that and for a tenth grader, it can be very difficult if there are some areas lacking.

 

Abitur English:  Going up a notch is the Abitur exam, taken by those in the 12th or 13th grade who are on their way out of the Gymnasium and heading to college or the real world. The oral portion exam is structured like the BLF- meaning three parts with one of the parts requiring  preparation time of 30 minutes before the time of the exam. In that part, the student is given a text to prepare. This usually goes first as a way of “dumping him/her into icy cold water.” Well, it is not that cruel, but the student has  to answer the (unexpected) questions provided by the examiner that have to coincide with the text to test the reading comprehension- and with own words.  The second and third parts of the exam comprises of conversation testing listening and oral skills, with the second part focusing on current events and the third part focusing on personal questions, etc. This includes future plans, high school life and other topics dealing with one’s life.  The grade of the oral exam is combined with the grade of the written exam, which is usually given prior to the oral part. Students have a chance to choose which subject to do the Abitur, yet the final grades will influence the decision of the universities in Germany to admit or reject the applications. In other words, be aware of the Numerus Clausus when you want to apply for a degree program at the university, for if you do not have a 1,3 or better, you may not be admitted to the program of your choice.  One more thing: The Abitur Exam means A-level exams in English and are applicable in Germany.

 

UNICERT:   Developed by the Technical University of Dresden, the UNICERT exam applies to college students studying in the field of business, sciences, law and humanities. Students can receive the certificate with the grade level of I-IV, pending on which university offers what level of UNICERT certificates and what level of difficulty for languages. That means level I applies to A-B1 language niveau according to the European Language Reference, whereas level IV is up to C2 level.  For example, the University of Bayreuth (Bavaria), where I taught English for a couple years offers UNICERT up to level four, whereas the University of Halle (Saxony-Anhalt) only offers UNICERT up to level two.  The UNICERT is perhaps one of the most rigorous of exams, for in order to receive a UNICERT Certificate, students not only have to attend certain numbers of accredited English classes and pass the courses, but as soon as they obtained enough credits for the UNICERT exams, they have to achieve the highest possible score for the four-part exam, each part featuring reading comprehension, listening comprehension, oral communication, and essay writing based on a given theme.  While both reading and listening feature questions to answer, in listening comprehension, you listen to the audio clip twice before answering the questions. In oral communication, the format is the same as in the Abitur and BLF Exams- 30 minutes of preparation time with a text with possible questions to be answered followed by 30 minutes of small talk, text questions and current event questions.  Speaking from experience, while students think the UNICERT is really difficult, the teachers find preparing each and every theme for the given parts to be really difficult, for the themes must fit to the students’ field of study as well as the current events, especially if the theme suggestions are rejected, altered or accepted with reservations by other members of the language institute. But that is a different topic to be saved for a lousy day of teaching.  UNICERT exams are found at many German universities, as well as those in Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, yet they are frowned upon as being insufficient for proof of language skills for the future jobs. That is why one will see UNICERT-accredited universities mostly in the southern half of Germany, as well as Saxony, Hesse and Berlin, but are rejected in the  northern half in states, like  Hamburg, Lower Saxony Mecklenburg-Pommerania and Schleswig-Holstein, cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, and at almost every technical university and university of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen).  But it does not mean that at these institutions where UNICERT does not exist that there are no exams to test the language proficiency of the students, as will be seen with the TOEIC.

 

TOEIC: TOEIC, which stands for the Test of International Communication is the most internationally recognized exam to be administered both in academia as well as in the business environment. It was first developed in the 1970s by the US-based Educational Testing Services and features two part: The Listening-Reading Test and the Speaking and Writing Test. The former features multiple choice questions and live conversations with people of different cultural backgrounds and speaking different dialects. The exam lasts 2 hours and a person can receive up to 900 points. The latter features 20 minutes of oral communication and 60 minutes of writing, and the person can receive up to 400 points. The exams are ordered by the institutions and as soon as the exams are completed, they are sent to the language testing center, where they are corrected and evaluated, and the certificates are sent to the institutions and/or examinees. Yet prior to the exam, preparation classes are required, where materials pertaining to TOEIC are used almost exclusively. One can present additional materials to class as long as they are relevant to the subjects that are covered for the exam. This makes the TOEIC the most centralized of exams and also the strictest, for guidelines must be met in order for the exam and the certificates to be valid. This is speaking from experience of a teacher who has a TOEIC Examiner License for over 4 years now.  Unlike UNICERT, teachers wanting to administer TOEIC must complete training at a language center and take some additional courses to update your knowledge of TOEIC. These can cost some money, but the training is worth it. TOEIC can be found at almost all the Fachhochschulen, universities that do not have UNICERT, and several business institutions. They are open for both students and adults alike, including those who are unemployed and are changing careers.

Note: TOEIC rivals the exams administered by Cambridge University and Trinity School of London as they follow similar guidelines, yet these exams can be found at the universities and institutions of continuing education (Volkshochschulen). More information about the TOEIC can be found here

 

So which exams are the toughest? Speaking from experience as a teacher, the exams can be compared to a flight of stairs a person has to go up in order to succeed. That means for students, the BLF is perhaps the easiest and the first step, whereas the UNICERT is the most difficult. Abitur and TOEIC are right in the middle. But this is in regards to the degree of difficulty that is expected. However, from the teacher’s point of view, the TOEIC is perhaps the easiest as there is little preparation time and the materials are provided. It is just a matter of following the units and ensure that you have an agenda to follow for the students in order to achieve the unit. The UNICERT is the most difficult for you need to develop the test and course curriculum yourself. While the course portion is not a problem if you are doing that individually and develop your own guidelines that fits the UNICERT requirements, when you work together with your colleagues at the university, you can run into several conflicts which can turn a harmonious relation into guerrilla warfare, which could make working together be a discord, and most times, the students taking the exam suffer in the end. But if asked which certificate would be most suitable for any job after school, then clearly the TOEIC would be the choice, for the Abitur is only a bridge to entering college and may be difficult to be accepted by the employer, and the UNICERT is restricted to Germany and the European stage.  But before proving your knowledge of a foreign language like English through certificates, it is best to work with the language so that you have enough confidence and skills mustered to pursue the Abitur, UNICERT or TOEIC. It is given that a proficiency exam, like the BLF will be given in the 10th grade. But for the others, the best way to master this success is interaction with others with native-speaker knowledge or even the native speaker him/herself. Sometimes a trip to that country for half a year will do the trick. 😉

 

What about other foreign language proficiency exams in the schools? Apart from BLF, what other exams exist in the German Bundesländern? Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page or send the author a line at flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. Don’t forget to share your thoughts about foreign language proficiency exams in the US, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

 

 

 

 

In School in Germany: Teaching Method- The Chalkboard

Here’s a question I have for all those learning a foreign language, in particular those teaching English in Germany:
Apart from the teaching book (German: Lehrbuch), what type of medium do you use for teaching foreign language classes, and for each medium, how do you use it?
As part of the series on my practical experience in a German Gymnasium, I will present some media that I and others have used, plus all the advantages and disadvantages that go along with each one.
I’ll start with our traditional use for the classroom: the good old fashion blackboard
Dating back to the stone age, the chalk and board was the earliest form of communication, as cave people drew pictures and used hieroglyphics on small tablets and rocks with certain forms of chalk or stick to explain stories and provide information that was important to them in their time. Many of these hieroglyphics still exists today- withstanding the test of time- and have been protected as historical sites.
Over 200 years ago the chalkboard was the only medium used in the one-room school houses and institutions of education, with many pupils having their own tablets to use for their assignments, whether it was for arithmetic, spelling or the like. When looking at the scene from the TV-series Little House, you can imagine what school life was like back then in comparison with right now.
Despite the advances in technology, with the white board (with text marker), the Smart Board (with electronic pens), TV and internet and other forms of 2.0 technology, schools nowadays still stick to the chalkboard as the main medium for teaching, especially when it comes to teaching foreign languages.  From the teacher’s point of view, there are many benefits and drawbacks to using this form of medium, many of which I’ve seen so far despite being in Gymnasium for a few days now:
ADVANTAGES:
Drawing diagrams, mind maps and pictures:  Many Americans know John Madden, the former sportscaster and commentator whose signature for all American football games for four decades was the usage of the electronic TV board, where his scribbling and descriptions could be seen on TV.  For those who don’t know him, here are a couple examples:

His source of inspiration: the chalkboard. For teachers who love to draw, the chalkboard for them is a lover’s paradise. You can make use of drawing diagrams, images and the like and still manage to capture the attention of the students and have them learn something.
Vocabulary:  This is useful, especially if you are teaching a foreign language class, like I am doing with English. There are two benefits of doing this: 1. To provide the students with information about the word’s meaning and 2. To help them with their pronunciation. In this case, I usually write the word down, have the students pronounce it and, if necessary, place accents on the syllables that are stressed in these words. This way, it helps students know how to speak it correctly, esp. as in some languages, like French and German, the way of pronouncing it is different than that of English.
Facts and points about theme:  For subjects like history, social studies and natural sciences, having these facts on the board provides a students with an opportunity to learn about the theme, let alone write them down in their notes to use for their exams. A classic example of how this works is with the Potsdamer Conference, where the key points would include the participants and their views on the future of Germany after the Fall of Hitler, a plan for the country (which was partitioning it into four sectors), and the Start of the Cold War, where Truman and Stalin had their first of many altercations to come in the 40-year conflict, using Germany as the chessboard.
Organization: Through mind-maps and outlines, organizing can help guide students through the agenda without getting lost.  Sometimes it serves as a complement to a presentation.
Games and interaction: I find this one to be the liveliest as far as the use of the chalkboard is concerned.  Whether it’s Pictionary, Hangman and Wheel of Fortune for foreign languages, Jeopardy for other subjects and other activities, one can make a session  an enjoyable experience with this method as it encourages students to test their skills and learn new things that are considered useful in the future.
DISADVANTAGES:
In spite of the advantages of the chalkboard, there are some drawbacks to using this traditional method, some of which I’ve observed so far in my observation of the classes so far, others from my own experience.  For example:
Handwriting: While doctors lead the pack when it comes to sloppy handwriting that is illegible, teachers and sometimes students are in a distant second place. While the advantage of practicing their writing is clear, sometimes the handwriting can be difficult to read. Whenever the student asks you what it is on the board or says that he/she cannot read it, then it is not a good sign.
Time consumption:  The biggest critique to using the board is the time consumption, both on the part of the teacher as well as the students having to copy the info on the board. Unless you integrate it into your Frontalunterricht, writing down the info to allow students to copy can take vast amounts of time away, unless you leave some space aside to write down some more topics.
Space: While the chalkboard may be big enough to write down everything you want, making sure you have enough space to write is something the teacher to take in mind. There may be lots to write down for the students, but if the teacher runs out of space and has to erase some information from the board, it might put some students at a disadvantage if they had not taken down the notes from the board prior to it being taken off.

Balancing out the positives and negatives, there are many ways that the chalkboard is being used in the classroom in my observations. One is for writing down facts and allowing students to copy the information. Another is for the purpose of providing questions in connection with the reading materials. Then you have the vocabulary words and grammar, which is useful, even when you give the students the chance to write down the answers.  And some diagrams and outlines have also been used in connection with the lessons in the class.  However, despite the chalkboard being the “sole medium” for teaching, there are other forms of media that can be used to make teaching more effective, and even enjoyable too.  There’s the overhead projector- useful for outlines, diagrams and questions and vocabulary lists. There’s the computer with various programs that are useful for learning.  And sometimes when your students don’t like writing and copying down info, there is the old-fashioned worksheet that has everything the student needs for the next subject.  How a teacher plans his courses depends on the subject, what forms of media he/she is comfortable with, and how interesting can a topic be with any sort of media.  The chalkboard will never die off and will be used many times, but with the advancement of technology in the classroom, we’ll most likely see this traditional form of media become a complement instead of the norm.
How so?  In my case, I use the chalkboard for gaming purposes, such as what I’ve mentioned earlier in the article. However, even more useful are the vocabulary words not only for defining words but also for pronunciation, all written in a small box reserved exclusively for that purpose. And yes, one should add some grammar examples to help students with their exercises they are doing to better their knowledge of foreign languages.  There are other ways of using the chalkboard for complementary purposes, but these are some that can be tried. Yet if one needs to write extensively on the board, put some time aside before class, so that more time is needed to interact with the students. Only then will it will be effective and useful.

 

 

 

FRAGE FÜR DAS FORUM:
What is understood by Frontalunterricht?
a. The teacher stands in front of the group and talks to them about a topic.
b. The students listen and write down the info presented by the teacher.
c. There is a presentation involved
d. There is little room for discussion, only question and answer sessions.
e. All of the above.

Place your answers down in the comment section here or on the Files‘ facebook page. In addition to that, how do you use the chalkboard in class, and do you agree with the author‘s suggestions? Add your comments as well and we hope to have a discussion going. 🙂