Hi everyone,

This is a bit of homework that I give my students and I thought you dudes might like it. It's based on an article I wrote for a little newspaper called The Guardian. MAYBE YOU'VE HEARD OF IT?!

I didn't write it specifically for CAE students but it's not all that different from a Reading Test Part 5 exercise - so it's good practice. (It's longer than a CAE text but if my students can do it, so can you.)

It's a true story.

Note - TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) are acronyms sometimes used to describe my job.

Testing My Patience

by Andrew Girardin

[1] "There are no classes for you just yet," said my boss, "so for now you will do PT all day." "Good, good," I said, "er... what's that?" "Placement testing. You talk to new students for about ten or 15 minutes and decide which level they should study." He handed me a few pages of questions. "Start by asking them these intermediate questions and if they seem pretty good ask them the upper-intermediate. If they're weaker try the pre-intermediate. Just find their level." I was giddy about living in Shanghai so I didn't pause to reflect that my TESOL course and teaching books hadn't mentioned placement testing.

[2] At first I loved the idea of conducting interviews. I felt like Sherlock Holmes. "You are level 6." "Gosh! But how did you know?" "Simple deductive reasoning. You used a third conditional sentence and your use of tense was always appropriate. But when I said, 'How are you?' you replied 'Twenty-two.' It's textbook."

[3] If I took the testing seriously, so did most of the students. Chinese culture stresses the importance of tests. And many of the students had never spoken to a foreigner before. The first time I spoke to a Chinese man he sat shivering in front of me, shivering in the middle of the three-month heatwave that is Shanghai's summer. He'd studied English for many years and I was the first foreigner he'd spoken to. A high rating from me would validate his effort and expense; a low rating would crush his spirit and make him lose face. I felt sorry for him so I put him in a high level. Later I would take malicious pleasure in placing students below their expectations.

[4] After a while the tests were easy, but repetitive and boring. Once I'd done some teaching it was simply a case of comparing new students with old ones. "Hmm, this guy is better than Richard but not as good as Rosy. Level 6." It seemed like every student was level 5 or 6. Always the same questions, always the same answers. We teachers resented the time we had to loiter around the school just in case a student walked in off the street. We could have used the time to explore Shanghai.

[5] I did so many tests it affected my way of thinking. I rated everyone I met. When our waitress left to get our drinks I'd say to my colleague: "Do you think that waitress is level 4 or 5?" He'd say, "If she gets our order right she's level 5. But she's not as good as the girls in Subway." The questions got into my head and wouldn't get out. I found myself asking my friends, "If you saw an alien, what would you do? What is your favourite movie and why?" A girl approached me in a club. I panicked: "If you could be anyone in China, who would you be?" "What a strange question! Why do you ask me that?" "Because... I want to learn more about China and Chinese people." "Oh!" A narrow escape. I had to do something.

[6] My solution was simple. I could almost place students by the way they came in the room and said 'hello', so - this was heresy - I began asking questions to which I wanted to know the answer. "What's your dream? How has Shanghai changed in your lifetime? Where do I pay my gas bill? What's the best place to get pizza? How do I send fake DVDs to England and not get caught?"

[7] I always asked, "Why do you want to learn English?" It's a good question. Almost everyone said, "To get a good job." Occasionally some women said, "To get a foreign boyfriend." They usually ended up in one of my classes. Most of our students were women, and a high percentage of Chinese women are beautiful, so I 'met' lots of beautiful women. I was allowed to ask them personal questions as part of the test. At least, no one told me not to. "Do you have a boyfriend?" "No. (Shy glance.)" "Would you marry a foreigner?" "Maybe. (Giggle.)" Of course, no respectable TEFL teacher would ever date his or her students, or use placement tests as a kind of speed-dating service.

[8] My new approach transformed the tests from something certainly dull to something potentially interesting. For example, a spiky teenage girl taught me about the generation gap in modern China by raging at her parents. They hated her boyfriend because he wore an earring and had long hair. Her answer to every question was linked to her parents. "What do you wish you could change about your past?" "My parents' attitude to my boyfriend." "What do you wish for in the future?" "I hope my parents' attitude to my boyfriend will change." "Why do you want to learn English?" "To annoy my father. He wants me to learn German, so I learn English."

[9] PT made zombies of us teachers. We'd look at our timetables and sigh, knowing that 90% of our PT time was a waste. In a three-hour block of time we'd get two or three students. We tried and failed to make productive use of the time. We begged the school to give us less PT but they gave us more. They started selling corporate courses; I knew things would get worse.

[10] We sold a course to an advertising company. One afternoon they vowed to send us five students to test; my colleague and I waited for five hours. If I hadn't secretly installed Championship Manager onto the teacher's PC I would have been outraged. Eventually the workers began to arrive. The first one was beautiful. I tested her, and enjoyed it. Next I talked to a very intelligent man. We were having a good conversation when a vision floated past - beautiful, tall, elegant, flowing auburn hair - my mouth actually dropped open. It was very embarrassing. I tried to carry on the interview, but couldn't say anything. "Beautiful woman. She's my colleague," said the man, with a smug smile. I ended his test about 11 minutes early so that I could interview the woman. My colleague did the same. We looked at each other, then at the woman, then at each other again. For the first and only time I fought to do a placement test. "I'm interested in advertising - I should do it," I said, "I nearly studied it in university." "So? I need more practice of doing the placement tests," he said. "Look, I'm older than you. And you've got a girlfriend. And I started work here two days before you so technically I outrank you." I won, and talked to the world's most beautiful woman for 15 minutes. She was definitely level 8. I had a new level 8 class opening the next week.

[11] Those 15 minutes were enjoyable but I'd waited five hours before that. I didn't go to Shanghai to play computer games. One of the attractions of my next school was that they used computers to do their placement testing. "How have computers changed the way people live?" Level 10. Never got the chance to ask that one.

There is one question per paragraph.

1.  In the first paragraph, the writer
a  thought the questions were too hard
b  felt ill-prepared for the tests
c  was happy to be leaving Shanghai

2.  In the second paragraph, the writer
a  asked questions from a textbook
b  asked a simple question for the wrong reason
c  knew the student had answered the wrong question

3.  In the third paragraph, the writer
a  met a cold Chinese man with a strange face
b  had never spoken to a foreigner before
c  was kind at first but later turned evil

4.  In p4, the writer
a  complains about his job
b  looks forward to starting as a teacher
c  uses his time in a productive way

5.   In p5, the writer worries that
a  the waitress won't bring him the right sandwich
b  aliens have stolen his friend
c  his job is making him even more weird

6.  In p6, the writer decides to
a  use the placement tests for his own purposes
b  answer students' questions
c  ask his students to mail DVDs to England for him

7.  The final sentence of p7 is intended to be
a  serious
b  ironic
c  nostalgic

8.  The student was mainly motivated by
a  her love for her boyfriend
b  her love of the English language
c  her love of infuriating her parents

9.  The writer hated PT time because
a  he had to hang around the school in case a student turned up
b  he hated doing corporate courses
c  he was afraid of zombies

10.  The writer placed the woman in level 8 based on
a  her appearance
b  her knowledge of grammar
c  his interest in advertising

11.  The writer
a  waited five hours to play a computer game
b  never met a level 10 student
c  found himself attracted to a computer

Now check your answers by clicking here:

When I give this as homework to my classes, I start the next lesson with my students discussing the article with the following questions. if you have a study buddy you can talk about these things with him.

You can ask your own question (see question 6) in the comments section - I will answer some of them...

Conversation Questions

  1. What did you think of this article?
  2. "Being good at grammar is pointless if you can't speak or understand simple questions."  Do you agree?
  3. What's the hardest/most stressful test you've ever taken?
  4. What parts of your job annoy you?
  5. Meeting beautiful women is a perk of my job.  What are the perks of your job?
  6. After reading this fascinating insight into the mind of an English teacher, you must have some questions. Go ahead and ask in the comments below...