Language Auditing: self-assessment in five countries

Written by: Ivan Shotlekov, Vanya Ivanova, Cor Koster Introduction
The knowledge of English or, for that matter, of any other foreign language is not as widespread in Central and Eastern European countries as in the “old” EU countries, thus putting companies and institutions there at a disadvantage in their dealings with foreign counterparts. Evidence for the limited knowledge of foreign languages in, for instance,  Hungary is provided by Koster and Radnai (1997), who carried out a survey of foreign-language knowledge in southern Hungary. This revealed that many businessmen showed a keen awareness that the volume of their business may depend on a knowledge of foreign languages: 63.8% stated that they expected an increase in business with a better command of foreign languages. As many as 14.1% of the companies, especially SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), conceded that they avoid foreign markets because of language problems. This fact is particularly intriguing, as it points to a very serious obstacle to internationalisation, so important for the small and medium-size companies in Central and Eastern Europe.
English, of course, is the language most frequently used in international business. There is abundant evidence that English is becoming a global language, without which doing business would hardly be possible (McArthur, 1996; Crystal, 1997; Graddol, 1997). But there is also evidence that in some countries and in some fields of business there is an increasing need of other languages, too (Koster and Radnai, 1997; Hagen, 1999; Huhta, 1999).
The fact that many SMEs  experience “needs” or “shortcomings” in this area raises the question what they do, or can do, about the matter. Few companies have a full-fledged “foreign-language policy”, with a strategy how to address the language issue in the short and medium term, let alone the long term. In most cases a perceived “need” leads to employees being sent to a language school, where in most cases they get “general English” or “business English”. Or they attend in-company classes, where they may even get a “made-to-measure” course. Sometimes the company pays for the foreign-language classes, in money, in time, or in both. Sometimes employees have to care of their classes themselves. One interesting case is an example from Hungary, where in the early 1990s a Dutch bank took over a Hungarian one. The new Dutch managers noticed that the Hungarian staff knew virtually no foreign languages at all, which made them develop a simple but very effective “foreign-language policy”: all staff members were told that they had to become proficient in at least one foreign language in two years” time,  that the management was not paying for these classes, that the lessons had to be taken in the employees” own time, and that if they did not manage to speak a foreign language at the end of the two-year period, they would be sacked. This approach turned out to be very motivating… (Koster and Radnai, 1997:34). An even more brutal way is simply firing people and hiring new staff who already have a certain proficiency in a foreign language. A much more humane way is having someone carry out a language audit.
Language audits
A language audit is an investigation of the language needs of a particular company, resulting in a report outlining what action the company can undertake to increase the language competence of its employees, thereby increasing the possibility of contacts with foreign clients. It is mainly used for two purposes:

  • to help a company develop a foreign-language policy,
  • to collect data which enable a language school to develop a customised course for individual employees, or for specified groups of employees.

The latter is called for when a company wants a made-to-measure course for its employees; otherwise the language institute or the person who has to teach the course will not know what sort of material to use, what level to start at, and what skills to concentrate on for his/her specific students.
The former is much more general, covering the whole process from identifying the main problem areas in the use of foreign languages in the various departments to planning how to overcome possible shortcomings, for instance by requiring certain staff members to attend language courses or hiring language experts. Sometimes, a language audit fulfills both functions.
Language audits are at the centre of a Leonardo da Vinci programme of the European Community, running from November 2001 to April 2004, called “LATE” (Language Audits – Tools for Europe). The specific aims of the project are to:

  • develop diagnostic tools for language audits, enabling enterprises, particularly SMEs and public authorities, to identify their communication needs and plan the necessary language training courses for their employees;
  • develop ESP language teaching materials, on the basis of actual audits made within the framework of the project. The language materials are aimed at public authorities, especially in local government institutions, but also at SMEs involved in or interested in expanding business across borders, and will be developed in order to familiarise them with the kind of formal English that is used in “European documents” (country-specific or EU information material, rules and regulations – for instance, import and export requirements, tenders, applications for funding, etc).

The participants in the project are 16 organisations from 7 countries: a multi-layer and multi-player mix of universities, teacher training colleges, SMEs and government organisations (at county level, city level and district level) in seven countries: the Netherlands, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Great Britain, Poland and Ireland. Co-ordinator is Taalcentrum-VU, the Free University Language Centre, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Further information on the project  can be found at
A tool for language auditing
The LATE project has developed a tool for carrying out a language audit, to be used by specially trained language auditors. It consists of a detailed questionnaire, a self-assessment and a vocabulary test. In this paper we look mainly at the relation between self-assessments and the test results, and discuss the findings of the try-outs in BG, HU, GR, NL and PL.
We will be very brief about the questionnaire. It was developed on the basis of suggestions made in the literature (for instance Reeves and Wright, 1996) and – especially – on the basis of the experiences at the Taalcentrum-VU, Amsterdam. This Free University Language Centre has been providing foreign language courses to SMEs since 1988. The aim of the questionnaire was to acquire as much pertinent information as possible, in an efficient a way, to be able to identify in as detailed a way as possible the job-related tasks that have to be carried out in a foreign language by individual staff members.
Part of the questionnaire was a self-assessment. Before we describe how we asked respondents to assess their own proficiency, a few words on the validity of self-assessments are needed.
Research on self-assessment has had two main objectives.  As mentioned by Finch (2001), the first aim includes ‘the investigation of possible ways of realising the goal of learner participation in matters of assessment and evaluation’. The second concerns ‘the investigation of the degree to which self-assessment instruments and procedures yield relevant and dependable results’. Even though the validity and reliability of self-assessment remains a moot field, there is evidence that learners can make satisfactorily accurate judgements of their own performance. As is pointed out by Coombe (2002), it is recognised now that learners are able to provide a meaningful contribution to the assessment of their performance and that this assessment can be valid.
In the part on self-assessment, our respondents had to indicate what they can do with the language, thus indicating what their “level” is. The “can-do” statements are based on and correspond to the levels described in the CEF (Common European Framework of Reference; Subjects were asked to assess themselves as to the four skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening – on the basis of statements such as:

CEF Reading Please tick highest level
A1 1. I can understand some words and very simple sentences on familiar topics.
A2 2. I can understand very short, informative texts on topics which are of personal interest or which deal with everyday matters.
B1 3. I can understand articles in newspapers and magazines, in which more complex sentences and words are used.
B2 4. I can read specialist articles which relate to my field.
C1 5. I can read with ease virtually all forms of the written language including specialist articles even when they do not relate to my field.

The responses were then compared with the results of the same subjects on a vocabulary test.
Vocabulary test
The vocabulary test consisted of 40 multiple-choice items, carefully selected in accordance with the assumed lexicon possessed at the different levels (Silo/Taalunie, 1996:11-19), which described a standard for the number of words one knows (receptive lexicon) and the number of words one can actively use (productive lexicon) in situations in which a foreign language is used. The (receptive) lexicon of the people whose skills match with those of level 1 should consist of 1.000 words; level 2 has 2.000 words, level 3 includes 4.000 words, level 4 goes up to 8.000 words, and at level 5 one has 16.000 words or more. The size of one’s lexicon can give an indication of one’s proficiency in a foreign language.
One obvious question in this respect may be: why use a “simple” vocabulary test, instead of a more elaborate test in which all the skills are represented? The answer is simple. In all kinds of research, the correlations between vocabulary and general proficiency are quite high, usually in the region of .65. Moreover, such a test can be done rapidly  and on a large scale, in writing. Finally, if one needs a test which is suitable for all levels, without making it too long, a vocabulary test is the quickest way to differentiate among people with different levels.  Our vocabulary test only requires seven minutes. And, as everyone knows, in business “time is money”.
Of course, we are aware of the lack of face validity of such a vocabulary test. People who have to fill it in may ask: “How can you say anything on the basis of this sort of test about my speaking abilities, or about my listening competence?”. In fact, it can, precisely because the correlation between size of vocabulary  and language proficiency is at least as high as between subtests in any composite test that addresses all the skills separately.
The item list can be divided into five parts, which correspond with the five levels: items 1-8 account for level 1, items 9-16 for level 2, items 17-24 for level 3, items 25-32 for level 4 and items 33-40 for level 5. The items in the list have been selected from a well-known word frequency list (Caroll, Davies and Richman, 1971) in such a way that items 1-8, which match with level 1, have been selected from the 1,000 words highest in ranking in the word frequency list, i.e. most frequently used in English. As the test progresses, the items become less high in ranking in the word frequency list.
Examples are:

level 1:

1. square

q  a three dimensional shape with six surfaces which are all the same size

q  a shape consisting of a curved line and every part of the line is the same distance from the centre of the area

q  a shape with three straight sides and three angles

q  a shape with four equal sides and four corners that are all right angles

level 3:

24. rare

q  odd

q  seldom

q  regularly

q  every now and then

level 5:

38. ordeal

q  a severe or trying experience

q  an agreement between two or more parties

q  verdict of a jury in court

q  a statement made to the public and media

The vocabulary test, with a maximum of 40 points, was scored as follows:

0-16    =1

17-22  =2

23-28  =3

29-34  =4

35-40  =5

Model relation between self-assessment and proficiency level.
For comparing the scores on the vocabulary test with the self-assessments, we took the mean levels of the four skills as indicated by the respondents, rounded off to integers (“self-assessment”). We plotted these against the results of the vocabulary  test (“test”). Ideally, anyone who regards himself or herself to be, for instance, at level 4, should also get a score which assigns him to level 4. Thus, all the scores “should” be in the diagonal yellow cells in the graph below (Fig. 1). If, for instance, someone thinks s/he is at level 4 but the test reveals that s/he is at level 2, s/he overestimated his/her level. Conversely, if someone scores 37 items correctly, which put him/her at level 5 in the test, and s/he thinks that the fitting level is 3, s/he underestimates his/her level.

under Model 1 2 3 4 5
Self- 2
overassessment 3

Fig. 1   Model: a perfect match between “self-assessment” and “test” should lead to all “matches” being in one of the yellow cells
As to the reliability of the test, Cronbach’s alpha indicated that it was very high (a=0.90). Almost all items had a positive item-total correlation; 83% had an item-total correlation of .20 or higher.
Over all subjects (N=119, in 5 countries: the Netherlands, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece), there was a positive correlation between the scores on the vocabulary test and the self-assessments (r=.61, p<.001; explained variance 37.2%). However, subjects in the various countries differed in the way they assessed their own proficiency.
Fig. 2 presents the percentages of correct assessments. It shows that Bulgarians (46% correct) were clearly better than Hungarians (15% correct).

Percentage of correct matches between self-assessments and test scores
Fig.2 Percentage of correct matches between self-assessments and test scores

What is more interesting, especially from an intercultural point of view, is the degree in which the various nationalities underestimated or overestimated their own level. There turned out to be a significant difference: c2 = 14.87, df = 4, p<.05. See Fig. 3.
As Fig. 3 shows, especially the Hungarians (70%) tended to underestimate their level. In the case of the Greeks, the number of people who overestimated their own proficiency was about equal to the number of subjects who underestimated their level (about 30%).
Underestimation and overestimation of one
Fig.3 Underestimation and overestimation of one's own level in five countries

In this paper, we introduced some aspects of the tool that has been developed in the Leonardo da Vinci project  “LATE” (Language Audits – Tools for Europe). Looking specifically at the relation between self-assessment and proficiency level, we have seen that there may be a potential difference in the useability of this tool in various countries: people in different countries seem to have different perceptions of their own proficiency, with Hungarians and Dutchmen tending to underestimate their abilities more than people in other countries.
Try-outs in five countries have shown that our approach – combining self-assessment and vocabulary test – is useful, but we must say that, at its present stage of development, it should be used with caution. This is partly because, although a person”s vocabulary size is a very good indicator of his/her proficiency, more advanced – though not necessarily more reliable – methods of establishing a person”s proficiency are becoming available. A very interesting development, for instance, is offered by computer-assisted tests, some of which can be taken on the Internet. One of these is the test developed by DIALANG, a testing system “available [on the Internet] to language schools and other institutions which need to carry out placement tests or to gain a quick indication of individuals” levels of ability in any of six European languages”. Similar facilities are offered by COMMUNICAT and BULATS, with the latter focussing on “language relevant to the work place”. Yet, our simple 40-item vocabulary test is valuable; it is something that can be done quickly (in seven minutes) and scored in a short time; it is very reliable and can be done by people without access to the Internet.
As to the self-assessments, people may often be right in estimating their level, but in many cases they either overestimate or underestimate their level. A personal conversation in the foreign language between the respondent and the language auditor usually reveals in less than a minute to an experienced teacher/auditor how realistic a self-assessment is.
At this stage of the LATE project, it seems that the tool developed (an audit consisting of a questionnaire, a self-assessment and a vocabulary test) presents enough information to a qualified language auditor to enable him/her to develop a relevant training programme.
Of course, in this paper we have not been able to discuss questions such as:

  • How do we train people to become “qualified language auditors”?
  • How do we translate the outcome of such an audit into actual material and teaching?

As to the first question: within the framework of the LATE project, courses are already being given to people who want to become language auditors, in four countries: HU, GR, BG and PL. The audit course in Sofia, for instance, was attended by 26 people, 17 of whom duly handed in their assignment papers, i.e. audits. The result was 10 audits, as 12 authors were awarded a Certificate of Attainment, and 6 others received a Certificate of Attendance.
As to the second question – the translation of the findings of such an audit into actual teaching material, and the related question of how to teach the people involved – this is a topic we are still working on.

So far, little has been published on language auditing: one book only on the technique of carrying out language audits  (Reeves and Wright, 1996) and some articles reporting on foreign-language needs in business (Koster and Radnai, 1997; Schopper-Grabe and Weiss, 1998; Hagen, 1999; Huhta, 1999; Weber, Becker and Laue, 2000). Nothing at all has been written on the process of translating the results of a needs analysis into specific teaching materials or teaching processes.
Because of the multiple-choice character of the test, a score of 10 could be achieved by pure guessing. Hence, although the 40-item test contained 5 groups of words with 8 items each from various frequency bands, all subjects with a score of  0-16 were assumed to have only level 1.

Developing Intercultural Communicative Competence through CLIL (Contend and Language Integrated Learning)

Written by: Nikolina Tsvetkova, Teacher trainer,
Department of Information and In-service Training of Teachers, Sofia
CLIL (Contend and Language Integrated Learning)
Summary: The present piece of writing deals with the contemporary context of bilingual education and teachers’ in-service qualification in relation with it. The main tasks of intercultural education and the main groups of intercultural skills which students should acquire while learning a foreign language, their relation to the integrated learning of content and language is substantiated. Two practical activities aiming at the development of intercultural communicative competence and suitable for use in English, Geography and History lessons (9th and 10th grades) are also suggested.
Content and Language Integrated Learning in Bulgaria and the qualification of the teachers who perform it: Content and Language Integrated Learning (bilingual education) in Bulgaria has a long history of about 50 years. In its contemporary form it is connected with teaching subjects such as History, Geography, Biology, Philosophy, and so on in English, German, French, Spanish and some other foreign languages. This type of education, which is now implemented at the bilingual (language) schools does not merely aim at foreign language proficiency, the latter is the means of acquiring knowledge in other branches of science. Obviously, both teachers’ and students’ task is not an easy one as students, in John Clegg’s (1999) words have to do two things in the bilingual classroom: they learn a school subject and at the same time develop their competence in the language through which they arrive at this specialised knowledge. Drawing on EFL methodology he suggests various options for reducing their ‘learning load’ by means of tasks aimed at the development of the four traditional language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
Teachers’ qualification is of primary importance for a fruitful process of learning any subject through any foreign language. Here I mean not only the qualification of subject teachers but that of the FL teachers who can ‘import’ content elements in their lessons as well and who can play the role of supporters, advisers and partners to colleagues and students alike.
To meet this need, in 2002 a project managed by Stefka Kitanova (Bulgarian Academy of Science, Institute of the Forest/ teacher of Biology at the Miguel de Servantes language school in Sofia) was initiated. Its partners were the Ministry of Education and Science, the British Council, Sofia, Department of Information and In-service Training of Teachers (Sofia), South Western University (Blagoevgrad), Veliko Tarnovo University.
The primary aim of the project was to create a CLIL course for in-service and pre-service qualification of subject teachers as well as to pilot it with both practicing and student teachers. At present, the course has been already trailed out at the Department of Information and In-service Training of Teachers with one group of teachers of various subjects (History, Geography, Chemistry, Biology) while at the South-Western University it is being carried out once a week with students of History who intend to teach the subject in English after graduating. In the autumn, it is going to be trialled out for the second time with a different group of teachers. The course content is in harmony with the contemporary trends in bilingual education, concentrating not subject specific topics, but rather addressing a wide range of problems, drawing on current methods and approaches typical not only of specialized subject fields but also of FL methodology. (Appendix 1)
The course writers have the ambition to start a rich collection of supplementary materials – from articles on the problems of bilingual education to lesson plans and additional materials tried out in practice and developed by teachers and students. Below are two of the tasks included in this collection, developed by me and piloted with two groups of teachers.
Teaching culture and teaching a specialized subject: Today it is hardly necessary to convince people that teaching a foreign language is inextricable from teaching the culture of its speakers and this should be done not simply through “teaching the facts” but developing certain skills, deepening students’ understanding of themselves, inspiring tolerance for otherness. Culture is no longer viewed as “high”, e.g. pieces of various arts, knowing the history of the respective country, but as a small-letter word – the total of views, attitudes, modes of behaviour, which determine a group of people as such. Consequently, it is not by chance that the ‘fifth skill’ – that of being able to communicate interculturally is being discussed together with the “classical” language ones – the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. When discussing the problem of intercultural communicative competence (ICC), Michael Byram (1997) states that it is a complex of competences, which he terms with the French word ‘savoires’. According to his classification we can speak of ICC when the following skills (savoires) are developed: skills of interpretation and relation; skills of revealing and/or communicating; knowledge of self and other, of communication – in private and in public; an attitude of relativising ‘self’ and appreciating ‘others’.
In Bulgaria, as a result of the active work of a group of teachers of English and with the invaluable support of the British Council, in 1998, appeared the first cultural studies syllabus (Branching Out), whose aims and objectives are achieved in the English language lessons through the foreign language as well as, where necessary, through the mother tongue. It is based on four groups of skills: skills to read critically (implying an ability to distinguish fact from opinion, to decode the hidden message of a text or visual image, to deduce about their author, source, target audience and so on); skills to compare and contrast (own culture phenomena, foreign culture phenomena, own and other culture phenomena), research skills (giving students a chance to investigate on their own into own and/or other cultures and to draw relevant conclusions.
Is it possible that these basic intercultural education postulates occupy a significant place when teaching school subjects in a foreign language or even in the students’ mother tongue? A brief review of the content of arbitrarily chosen textbooks, let us take the 10th grade History textbook or the 9th grade Geography one, shows that to handle the subject matter successfully students have to be able to analyze a piece of literature as a kind of document of the respective epoch, to analyze critically a written historical text as well as statistical data, they have to be able to compare and contrast natural resources and demographic peculiarities of different geographical regions, to participate in discussions and so on. The relation with the above mentioned ‘culture skills’ is more than obvious. Moreover, in these textbooks, there are topics which involve deepening one’s knowledge of own culture as a basis for the better understanding of other cultures – for example, the topic of world demographic development is discussed in History, Geography and Biology.
In a nutshell, the goals of the cultural studies syllabus can be achieved in the CLIL lesson, too. What is needed, however, is to enrich these textbooks with additional tasks and to give an ‘intercultural’ focus of the already existing ones. One possible obstacle before bilingual teachers might be that not all textbooks which correspond to the new school syllabi, have come out in languages other than Bulgarian. Teachers often have to look for and even translate supplementary materials. The library started by us meets this need as well.
Below are two of the tasks included in the ‘practical library’ aimed at development of ICC in History (10th grade) and Geography (9th grade). They can be used to supplement the Earth – people’s planet chapter from the 9th grade Geography textbook (Dimov et al: 2001) or to the topic of Towards a new postindustrial and information society Chapter from the 10th grade History book (Markov et al: 2001)

Task 1: Demographic structure of my neighbourhood

  1. In pairs read the example from the Chinese government’s advertising campaign.
  2. Discuss
    • Who is the advertisement aimed at? How does the advertisement achieve this aim?
    • Who is it produced by?
    • Why?
    • How does the choice of words influence the reader?
For you with one child:
Free education for only child.
Family allowances, priority housing and pension benefits
For those with two children:
No free education, no allowances and no pension benefits.
Payment of a fine to the state from earnings.
To help you:
Women must be 20 years old before they marry
Men must be 22 years before they marry.
Couples must have permission to marry and have a child.
Family planning help is available at work.

Bogoeva, A., Geography and Economics/ Supplementary book, Prosveta, 2003, p 77
3.  Find out how many

  • babies have been born in your neighbourhood in the past three years
  • are the teenagers
  • are the university students
  • are the pensioners
  • people have changed their jobs and why
  • people have lost their jobs and why

4. Discuss: What do your findings tell you about the culture?
Task 2: Help wanted
Based on Barry Tomalin & Susan Stempleski, Cultural Awareness, OUP 1993, pp 65 – 68

  1. In pairs, read the advertisements from the Job wanted columns of Bulgarian and/or British newspapers.
  2. Fill in the Task sheet.
  3. Change pairs and work with a partner who has read the other set of advertisements (Bulgarian or British). Compare your task sheets.
  4. As a ‘whole class’ discuss the following questions:
    • What did you learn about employment in the UK/ Bulgaria?\
    • How are the advertisements in your country similar to those in Britain?
    • How are they different?

Task sheet
Use the information in the advertisements to find out as much as you can about the various types of employment available in the respective culture. Write the information you find under the appropriate heading.
Jobs which pay an hourly wage
Jobs which pay a salary
Jobs with prestige
Facts about working hours
Benefits or ‘extras’ (health insurance, holidays with pay, etc.)
Labour organizations/trade unions
Qualifications required
Age constraints
Other information
Conclusion: The above tasks are based on 9th and 10th grade subject matter and are in a series of similar ones. They presuppose that some work on the development of the ‘fifth skill’ has already been done in the English lessons. They reveal just a small part of the possibilities for development of ICC skills offered by bilingual education in Bulgaria.
Branching Out: A Cultural Stuadies Syllabus (1998) Sofia, Bulgaria: British Council & Tilia
Byram M. Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Clevedon, UK, Multilingual Matters
Clegg J. Task Design in the Bilingual Secondary Classroom in Learning Through a Modern Language:models, methods and outcomes, Marsh J (ed.), Lancaster, UK, CILT
Tomalin B. & Stempleski S. (1993) Cultural Awareness OUP, UK
Intercultural Studies for language Teachers: A postgraduate distance learning course (2001) Sofia, Bulgaria, The British Council and Teacher Training Institute
Димов и съавтори (2001) История за 10. клас, София, Просвета
Марков Г. И съавтори (2001) География за 9. клас, София, Просвета

Teaching Conversation Skills: Avoiding the Monotonous Monologue

Written by: Julie Reimer, Visiting Lecturer, University of Veliko Turnovo For two years, I have taught at the University of Veliko Turnovo in central Bulgaria. I teach academic writing and conversation as part of the “practical English” component of students studying English philology or applied languages. After arriving, I heard one of my colleagues refer to these courses as the ones local faculty least like to teach. Presumably, academic writing isn’t favored because of the grading load. But why was conversation at the bottom of the list?
“Because it’s a monologue,” was the answer. Obviously, instructors were having trouble getting students to talk in their conversation classes. In addition, I found that students tended to not take the course seriously and many seemed to consider attendance optional, even though many of them spoke of how important they felt it was to get practice speaking.
My first year, I chose what I thought were some interesting topics that would allow for some cultural comparisons. However, I made the mistake of assuming that topics that interested me at age 20 would interest my students. In addition, each group only had the class every two weeks, which made both the students and I tend to be forgetful about assignments. Although the classes weren’t instructor monologues, they did have the problem that certain students did most of the talking, students dozed during each other’s presentations, and many students memorized their presentations rather than learning to speak extemporaneously.
The second year, my conversation classes went much better. This was partly because I had a good rapport with those groups of students—I had taught them academic writing the year before and was teaching them writing again. Therefore, they were accustomed to me and my teaching style. Another advantage was we could do assignments that tied writing and conversation classes together, for example, by having student debates on the topics of their persuasive essays or by doing a demonstration on the topic of their process analysis essay.
I decided to grade the students on the following factors:

  • Attendance: This is particularly important for a conversation class. Students are unlikely to practice English conversation with their friends after class. Extra credit can be given for those who participate more.
  • Oral tests: Students took two tests during the year. Underhill gives several possible suggestions for oral testing, such as retelling a story. I would often have students recount an issue they had seen in the news recently and would then need to answer questions.
  • Oral presentations: The quality of presentations increased the second year, when I gave students clear instructions on what I expected and gave them a list of suggested steps to follow in preparing. In order to get the highest grade, students would need to use some kind of visual, have some original content, and speak in a natural sounding voice. Requiring the students to speak from the front of the classroom encourages more peer listening, and so does asking students to evaluate each other’s presentations.
  • Journals: Students wrote journal entries on assigned or free topics. This required them to think about a topic ahead of time so each person was prepared to speak about it in class. I then answered each entry and asked more questions of the student, creating a kind of written conversation. One thing I would do differently is to have students generate the topics.
  • Peer evaluations: Each student was required to write an evaluation of two or three presentations. Simple questions were assigned, such as “What were the best aspects of the presentation? What could be improved? What new information did you learn?”

Bulgarian students are good at memorizing, and one thing I tried to emphasize was that whereas there are appropriate times for memorized or read speeches, the skill most needed for conversation is to be able to talk “of the top of your head.” Therefore, keep in mind when grading oral skills that overemphasis of accuracy will encourage memorization, not fluency. Even native speakers make many errors and false starts when speaking, that the listener compensates for and ignores under normal circumstances. Underhill points out that an assessment of speaking skills needs to take into account the natural flow of conversation—false starts, interruption, pause words, self-correction.
Of course, each class has its own personality, and some flowed more smoothly than others. Classes with more outspoken students often took on a life of their own. Using the Student Generated Conversation activity described in the appendix, I had sessions where I spoke less than 10 percent of the class time. When using the Which is More Important activity from Klippel, the referees would sometimes give long, well-thought out explanations of why one team’s arguments were better than the other. One class, however, was full of diligent but quiet students, and with them I would need to use more organized activities and games to keep them talking.
Finally, one advantage of conversation classes is that the subject matter is unlimited. The world is your subject. One day I ran into the husband of the Fulbright professor at the university, who was filling some of his time by teaching conversation classes. He was carrying bags he had filled with rocks and sand. He told me he was going to use it in conversation class. Finally, he told me what he had done. Students were told to use the materials to fill jars. The lesson is that when one fills the jar with rocks, there is still room for sand, and after filling the jar with sand, there is still room for water. Therefore, we should worry about the important things in life first.
If we fill the classroom with interesting activities, there is still plenty of room for conversation to fill in the gaps and make our class time full and rewarding.
Klippel, Friederike. Keep Talking: Communicative Fluency Activities for Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Underhill, Nic. Testing Spoken Language: A Handbook of Oral Testing Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.


Conversation Activities

Sample Activities:
1. Telling and analyzing jokes
Discuss different themes common to jokes such as

a. a genie grants three wishes

b. three different kinds of people are in a bar and ….

c. jokes involving blondes, lightbulbs, politicians, etc.

and have students share jokes they know that fit the different categories. You could also discuss skills involved in telling a joke well, for example, giving emphasis to the punch line. The homework assignment is for everyone to bring a joke to class.
2. Student-led conversation
This is my standard activity in the classroom. In pairs or small groups, students choose a topic and generate a list of questions to draw their classmates into discussion. Each group is in charge of keeping the conversation going for 10 minutes. At first, students might need guidelines for topics such as music, film, pets, etc. Students learn which kinds of questions are better at generating conversation.
Bad example: Who is Hugh Grant? Is he married? (Fails to evoke a lengthy response)
Better example: What are your favorite Hugh Grant films? If you were Bridget Jones, would you have dated Hugh Grant’s character?
Students can be given a homework assignment to prepare discussion questions, for example, on a current event.
3. Games: These are good for warming up the class, keeping a passive class going, or filling the last 10 minutes of class.
A. Do You Love Me?
This works with students of different ages and levels. It requires you to be able to put chairs in a circle. Sometimes students get so excited that they knock each other over, so beware of using this in litigious countries. Put seats in a circle with just a few cm between each one. If there are 16 of you, there should be 15 chairs. One person stands in the middle. The “odd man out” asks a seated person “Do you love me?” If the answer is yes, everyone seated moves to the right one chair. The standing person tries to steal a seat, but usually can’t. If the answer is no, s/he asks “Why not?” The seated person must give a reason: “because I only love ___________________  (people with blue eyes/Macedonians/people in black shoes/ people whose name starts with “M”/etc.). Anyone who fits the criterion named must change seats with another who fits the description. This gives the person in the center a better opportunity to steal a seat. The person left without a seat must take the center.
B. Quiz show
Small groups of students choose a topic (geography, history, films, sports, etc.) and write 3-4 questions to challenge the other teams. Anyone who feels they know the answer to the quiz question raises their hand. The first to raise a hand gets to answer. Their team will get two points if correct, but lose a point if it’s incorrect.
C. Which is more important? (From Keep Talking)
Teams of students debate which of two things is more important, for example, beer vs. milk, rainbows vs. waterfalls, spoons vs. forks, schools vs. hospitals. Three students serve as referees who decide which team has won each debate.
D. Politicians and Journalists
This fun activity can be found at [] in British and American versions…you might make some modifications that will suit Balkan students.
4. Skits
Pass around grocery bags containing 4-5 household items for each group of 3-5 students. They must come up with a skit involving each item (for example, an apron, a camera, a map, a funnel, a dictionary, etc.)
5. Mime
The advantage of mime is that the person who is “on the spot” isn’t talking. The rest of the class tends to talk without feeling self-conscious. Possible mime activities include

a. (From Keep Talking) Hotel Receptionist (109). Students are told they are staying at a hotel where they have lost their voice and must act out a message for the receptionist. I find most of the suggestions in the book rather dull, so I tend to make mine more interesting:

Please help me get my pet elephant into the elevator.

There’s a terrible smell coming from the next room.

Someone just jumped from a 10th-storey window!

It sounds like there’s a kangaroo jumping around upstairs.

b. Act out English idioms, such as “There’s no use crying over spilled milk” or “A stitch in time saves nine.”

c. Students choose names of songs, books, films, etc. to act out.

6. Ranking activities
Keep Talking contains several examples of ranking activities. Here’s one they don’t have (I’m sorry I don’t know the original source of the story)

Once upon a time there was a girl named Rosemary, who loved a boy named Geoffrey. Unfortunately, between the two of them was a river full of vicious and hungry crocodiles. Rosemary went to the boatman, Sinbad, and asked for his help. Since Rosemary didn’t have the money for the fare, Sinbad said “OK, Rosemary, I’ll take you, but only if you sleep with me.” Rosemary then went to her friend Irving for help. Irving said “Well, Rosemary, that’s your problem, not mine.” So Rosemary agreed to Sinbad’s bargain. In the morning, he took Rosemary across in his boat. Rosemary and Geoffrey were joyfully reunited, but shortly before they were to be married, Rosemary admitted how she had gotten across the river. Furious, Geoffrey said “I can never forgive you for that. I won’t ever speak to you again.” Devastated, Rosemary told her story to an acquaintance, Frederick. Frederick said, “Rosemary, I’m so sorry. If you want, I’ll marry you.”

Students rank the five characters from best to worst, and explain their reasoning. They could also act out the story, present the case of their favorite character, or act out a dialog from a scene in the story.
7. Case studies
Case studies can be used as topics for debate in the classroom. For Example:
A:        A Green Light for Red Light Business?
The country of Dyspepsia is considering legalized prostitution, as is practiced in the Netherlands and parts of the US State of Nevada. Healthcare professionals, sociologists, and others are debating the proposal.


Legalizing prostitution would solve many problems. This way the business would be regulated, which would help prevent sexually transmitted diseases, make the profession much less dangerous, and take it out of the hands of organized crime. Making sex work legal would also generate tax revenue and give the workers more rights and respect in society.


The problem with legalizing prostitution is that it legitimizes the degradation of women and implies that it is acceptable to use another human’s body as a commodity. Some countries where prostitution is legal have the problem that “white slavers” (traffickers in women from Eastern Europe, etc.) operate without fear of prosecution. Also, the creation of brothels could turn neighborhoods into unsavory “red light districts.”

B:        A Base for Blobbo
Rich nation Blobbo wants to build a military base in the poor nation of Passistan, which borders on the potentially-dangerous dictatorship Jerkostan, ruled by strongman General Jerko. The parliament of Passistan is debating whether it will allow Blobbo to build the base.

Minister #1:

Allowing the base will make us a military target. So far General Jerko has left Passistan alone, but the base could provoke his anger. Other Blobbo bases abroad have led to social problems around them such as drunkenness, violence, and prostitution. Allowing the base will make us pawns in Blobbo’s foreign policy, and we don’t share the same values as the leaders of Blobbo.

Minister #2:

Passistan has a high unemployment rate, which the base will help decrease. It will provide jobs and opportunities for economic growth. It will improve our relations with Blobbo, which can lead to more economic aid and trade. It could also help prevent an attack by General Jerko, who has only ignored Passistan because of our lack of natural resources. We need Blobbo’s friendship.

Sample Rubric – Oral presentation
Speaking tone – 10 points
_10   seemed to speak “from head”, maybe with occasional use of notes, had eye contact with audience
_8     spoke fluently, but talk sounded memorized, some eye contact
_6     speech was halting or monotonous
_4     talk hard to follow because of many false starts, was difficult to hear, or was simply read from a text
_2     speech was extremely difficult to understand, monotonous, and completely read from text
Topic and originality – 10 points
_10      topic held audience interest, had logical arguments and original points
_8        generally held interest, some original material
_6        of average interest, little original content
_4        little interest to audience, lack of logic or originality
_2        audience fell asleep, painted fingernails, did homework…
Pronunciation – 5 points
­_5        near native speaker – no problems understanding
_4        understandable, but listener must compensate for accent
_3        heavy accent but generally understandable
_2        many problems in understanding because of accent
_1        very difficult to understand because of mispronunciation
Visual aids – 5 points
­_5        used interesting and appropriate visual aids all could view
_4        appropriate aids used, possibly too small
_3        some visual aids used, maybe not interesting or appropriate
_0        no visual aids used
Oral Presentation steps
(modified from Marina Samalieva, Plovdiv University, “Concerning the Development of Presentation Skills in EFL”, presented at the conference Dialogues: American Studies in an International Context, Plovidiv University, 2002.

  1. Define presentation task
  2. Define learning purpose
  3. Generate/brainstorm ideas
  4. Shape thesis
  5. Collect information (research)
  6. Draft outline of presentation
  7. Draft visual aids
  8. Rehearse and evaluate (considering these aspects)
    1. stance
    2. articulation
    3. pronunciation
    4. loudness
    5. tempo
    6. pauses
    7. variety (tempo and loudness)
  9. Revise outline, aids
  10. Make presentation
  11. Seek feedback from audience
  12. Self-evaluation – how will you improve your next presentation?

What does TOEFL test sometimes?

Traditionally, Bulgarian takers of the TOEFL have very good results. It is mainly teenagers in their last year at high schools (most notably English Language schools) that take the test, the most common purpose being to continue their education at American universities. Many of them go in for courses offered for preparation for the TOEFL examination.

Written by: Vyara Istratkova & Ellie Boyadzhieva South-western University of Blagoevgrad – Neofit Rilski
[toc class=”toc-right”]
General Introduction
The choice of this topic has been provoked by some observations upon the preparation work and the successful accomplishment of some tasks by would-be Bulgarian takers of the TOEFL.
Traditionally, Bulgarian takers of the TOEFL have very good results. It is mainly teenagers in their last year at high schools (most notably English Language schools) that take the test, the most common purpose being to continue their education at American universities. Many of them go in for courses offered for preparation for the TOEFL examination.
The Bulgarian candidates’ approach to the test is based mainly on the presumption that their high level of language proficiency is the necessary prerequisite for success. It does hold true to some extent as it is necessary indeed. Yet, language proficiency is not a sufficient condition for success, and that is what we will try to prove below.

Aims of the TOEFL

The TOEFL in used as a standard measure of the ‘English proficiency’ of the candidates taking it. The TOEFL score is a compulsory requirement of the admission offices of different educational institutions and organizations so that foreign candidates are considered for admission. (In the 1996 edition on p.6 we read: “Many Universities use TOEFL scores to fulfill the foreign language requirement for doctoral candidates whose first language is not English” (TOEFL 1996:6). Actually, this applies to nearly all (American) universities and it refers to undergraduates as well. An interesting point is that the TOELF is to be taken even by British students.

The material in focus and the authors goal

As it is well known the TOEFL consists of three sections: Listening Comprehension, Structure and Written expression and Reading Comprehension & Vocabulary section and it tests the candidates’ five skills – listening, structure, written expression, vocabulary and reading (TOEFL 1989:8).
The material in focus presents samples from the 1st, 2nd and the 3rd part of the Listening Section of two different editions of TOEFL which (also) differ in their format – the Listening Section of the Sixth edition of Barron’s TOEFL (1989) consists of a statement-restatement part, conversations and mini-talks, whereas in the Eight edition of Barron’s TOEFL (1996) the Listening Section is comprised of short conversations, longer conversations and talks. The examples included (in the corpus) are illustrative, the authors’ goal being to show that sometimes something more than language proficiency and proficiency in how to approach the examination is needed for the successful accomplishment of the listening tasks of the test.

Theoretical background

Tests are measurement instruments and (according to Carrol, 68) a “procedure designed to elicit certain behavior from which one can make inferences about certain characteristics of an individual” (Carrol 1968:46). In fact, tests are (or, ideally, should be) simulated real-life situations. On the basis of the performance of the candidate one should be able to make predictions about his/her language behavior in real life. The test itself should be based on the real needs and serve as basis for predictions about the ability of the students to cope with people and matters in reality.
In the theory of testing and evaluation, it is a well-known fact that it is “neither theoretically nor practically possible to define either an absolutely perfect level of actual language performance or an individual with perfect language ability” (Bachman 1990:11). This can be regarded as a direct consequence of the fundamental dilemma in foreign language testing, namely that “the tools we use to observe language ability are themselves manifestation of language ability” (Bachman 1990: 9).


Our personal observations show that in the TOEFL examination the most troublesome area appears to be the Listening Section of the test. Why should reading for example be easier than listening? After all, both are receptive skills. Yet, the phenomenon observed is not a surprising one – listening comprehension is found to be among the most difficult tasks for the learners due to several reasons. First, spoken language is ephemeral, and the examinees cannot refer to it whenever they want to as is the case with Reading comprehension texts. Consequently, they have to rely mainly on their memory abilities, which differ throughout individually. Second, examinees are pressed for time as the time is limited within the length of every particular text. Third, they have to develop different strategies for the different types of tasks depending on the types of exercises.
Accordingly, candidates sometimes fail to successfully accomplish the listening tasks. This may be owing to the fact that they do not know the meaning of a word or an expression. However, even if they did, it still might not make sense in the context, as the ideas of the text (the discourse) present a different point of view on the reality. When so, situations occur in which the students make wrong decisions even in cases when they know every single word in the string because of the fact that what they have heard merely does not meet their expectations, and sounds weird to them. Thus, candidates often fail to see the point because the language in use is strongly culturally biased.


We shall now consider several types of most problematic discourses for Bulgarian takers of the TOEFL excerpted from the Listening sections of the two TOEFL textbooks already mentioned and classified as academic and political discourse, education, different kinds of services, everyday practices, and social behavior.

I. Academic environment

The examples connected with academic environment outnumber the rest. In general, the
main factors for making mistakes in items reflecting the specific American academic environment are a consequence of the crucial differences between the American educational system and the one we have in Bulgaria. Basically, these differences concern the syllabus structure, the types of courses offered, the existence/lack of credit system, the academic positions. Not rarely do students face the problem of the so called false friends, as it is the case with the word “professor” for instance.

e.g. 1. (Barron’s TOEFL, 1989)
A: I’d like to take Dr. Sullivan’s section of Physics 100, but my advisor is teaching it too, and I don’t want her to be offended.
B: Who cares?

The question is: What should the woman do?
The correct answer is A: The woman should not consider her advisor in the decision.

e.g. 2 (Barron’s TOEFL 1996)
A: So the course is closed. This is terrible. I have to have it to graduate.
B: You are o.k. Just Dr. Collin’s section is closed. There is another section that is still open, but nobody knows who’s teaching it. It’s marked staff.

The question is: What would the student probably do?
The correct answer is C: Enroll in the section marked ‘staff’
(cf. B. Graduate at a later date; D. Find out who’s teaching the other section – confusing)

In both examples, in order to work out the right answer Bulgarian test-takers should know what the duties of the advisor are and what his/her functions are (advisors are members of the academic staff at American Universities). Moreover, at American universities one and the same subject is taught by two (sometimes even more) people and the students are free to choose whose course to attend which presents different practice from what we have in Bulgaria. One is also to be aware of the existence of credit system at US universities.

e.g. 3 (Barron’s TOEFL 1996)
A longer conversation between a student and a professor from which it becomes clear that the student couldn’t register for the class of the instructor because the course was closed by the time he got to the front of the line. The two problematic questions are: 1. What’s Mike’s problem (The correct answer: He must have the permission of the instructor); 2. What does the professor decide to do(T the correct answer: Allow Mike to take the class this term).

Here again, different regulations at US universities are reflected which do not have equivalents within the Bulgarian educational system – Bulgarian students are to be aware of the fact that there is a competition among the students to register for a course on first-come first-serve basis as well as of the possibility for exceptions allowed by the professors themselves.

e.g. 4 (Barron’s TOEFL, 1996)
A talk concerning assessment and evaluation:
“You have a midterm examination the last week of October, and a final examination the second week of December. The midterm is worth 25 points and the final is worth 50 points. That leaves 25 points for the project that …… and you have several choices to fulfill that requirement. You either write a paper or make a half hour presentation”……

The question is: What are the course requirements?
The correct answer is D: A midterm, a project and a final exam
(cf. A. A midterm and a final exam; B. A midterm and either a final exam or a project; C. A midterm and a paper or a presentation)

Obviously, the language in use is again culturally biased – knowledge is required about the content of the notions midterm and project (written paper/oral presentation); projects do not constitute part of the continuous assessment, they are part of the final grade. Students themselves own up that the whole seems to be a complete mess and they take pot luck when answering the question.

II. Education

e.g. 5 (Barron’s TOFEL, 1996)
The text presents a talk – in fact, this is a public service announcement telling about possibilities offered by a college for distance learning provided by the help of video telecourses. The question is : What is the announcement mainly about? (The correct answer: Video telecourses). In the explanatory notes the other two options (The Sun up semester programme & The community college campus) are said to be ‘secondary’ as they have been ‘used to develop the main topic’.

Bulgarian takers of the TOEFL exam are generally not aware of the existence of distance education as these are usually young people at school age.This type of education seems to be quite extended in the US whereas in Bulgaria such a possibility has been provided for only a couple of years now by few institutions and does not have as long traditions as in the US.

III. Political discourse

e.g. 6 (Barron’s TOEFL 1996)
This is a lecture on history with the following key expressions:
Each political party… nominates a slate of electors pledged to support the party’s nominees… each state has the same number of electors in the college as it has members of Congress …. registered voters go to the polls to choose the electors. The ballots list only the names of the candidates… This vote by the people for electors is called the popular vote and the candidates who receive the most popular votes win all the electoral votes in a state.

The text includes a lot of specific terms and the test-takers need specific subject knowledge about the political electoral procedure. At short notice and after having heard the talk once only they have to identify all the names and to adjust them to the roles played by the different groups of people at the elections. The very word college is rather confusing – “An organized body of persons with shared functions and privileges” (Oxford Reference Dictionary). Thus, it is beyond doubt that language proficiency is far from sufficient if a Bulgarian student is to answer the questions: How are the people nominated for the electoral college? What is the popular vote?

IV. Everyday practices – food and drinks

e.g. 7 (Barron’s TOEFL 1996)
This example presents a longer conversation between two speakers in front of a coffee machine which has just stolen the man’s money. Finally they decide to go to the library to try the vending machine there. The questions to be answered are: 1. Why did they decide to go to the library? (The correct answer:To have coffee); 2. What prompted the conversation? (The answer: The speaker wanted coffee); 3. What do the speakers mainly discuss? (The correct answer: The coffee).

Vending machines are typical for all public places in the US and other countries, yet hardly ever seen in our country. So, you can go to any public place (library including) and be sure to find a machine there whereas to a Bulgarian a library is a place to only borrow or read books. An additional problem is the fact that the word “vending” has no equivalent in Bulgarian – no word for non-existing artifact.

e.g. 8 (Barron’s TOEFL 1996)
A: What do you want on that?
B: Everything and extra catsup, too, please.
The question is: What does the man mean?
The correct answer is: lettuce, pickles, onions, mustard, mayonnaise, and catsup

The TOEFL textbook explains: “Everything is an idiomatic (?) expression that means all
the condiments included”. Obviously, this item does not test language proficiency at all. You have to have lived in the US for some time to know the expression. As Bulgarian takers of the TOEFL examination are usually young people at school age, most would have no prediction as to what the phrase means.

V. Health services

e.g. 9 (Barron’s TOEFL 1989)
This is a conversation between a pharmacist and a patient of Dr. Williams’s, the doctor being supposed to give a prescription.
Key phrases: Aspirin is the strongest medication I can give without a prescription; I can call him…. Dr. Williams will give me a pain prescription over the phone.
The question to be answered: 1.Where does the conversation take place? (The correct answer: In the drug store); 2. Why did the man call Dr. Williams? (The correct answer: To get a prescription for the woman on the phone)

Something one should take into consideration here is the existence of different words in the two varieties – drugstore in American and chemist’s in British English. It is true though it does not usually cause problems for Bulgarians, but it might well be a problem for some native speakers of British English.
The main problem for a Bulgarian here might be the behavior of the chemist which seems rather strange since it is not possible to get a prescription on the phone in our country. What is more, in Bulgaria, no prescription would be needed a for a pain killer.

VI. Services

e.g. 9 (Barron’s TOEFL 1996)
A: You turn on the TV by pulling on this button. The heat control is on the wall. Will there be anything else, Ma’am?
B: No, thank you.
The question is: What can be inferred about the man?
A.   He’s a TV repairman
B.   He’s a bell boy (the correct answer)
C.  He’s a tailor.
D.  He’s a security guard.

In order to decide on which the correct answer is, one is to first identify the settings – deduction should be made about a place with both a TV and a heating device for which someone is responsible. This is more or less a matter of common sense, however only possible for experienced travelers since very few hotels provide bell boys services in Bulgaria and these are usually very expensive ones.

VII. Social behavior

e.g. 10 (Barron’s TOEFL 1989)
This is a restatement example:
My invitation has RSVP printed at the bottom.
A.   I should dress formally.
B.   I should tell the hostess whether I’ll go (the correct answer)
C.  I should take liquor.
D.  I should buy a ticket.

It is of crucial importance here that the abbreviation be interpreted correctly. The abbreviation itself is a borrowing from French and means repondez s’il vous plait. This phrase has almost no circulation in Bulgaria except on very formal occasions . We should not except the average Bulgarian to know it.

Some conclusions

  1. The TOEFL textbooks do never provide any information about cultural specifics and concentrate on grammar and lexis only. Consequently, many prospective test takers go in for courses which prepare them for the successful sitting of the examination.
  2. The courses but most often provide instruction only in grammatical and vocabulary issues and focus mainly on the techniques and building strategies to complete the test tasks within the time required.
  3. The material discussed above and the situation observed lead inevitably to some important consequences concerning the type of instruction necessary for the preparation for the TOEFL not only in BG but elsewhere. The basic presumption is that every candidate targets higher scores, hence a correct answer to every test item seems to be crucial for him/her.
  4. This puts additional load onto the instructors as they have to provide at least the minimum information on several cultural specifics, and especially in the academic discourse as this topic area presents abundance of different cultural practices included in the test content.
  5. From everything said so far one general question follows: who will make a better instructor for the TOEFL examination – a native or a non-native teacher? In the authors’ opinion a non-native teacher seems to be better suited to perform this task as cultural issues involve implicit or explicit comparisons with another culture and only a non-native teacher can possess the knowledge and intuition what the similarities and the differences in the target culture are so that to elicit the most problematic topics and issues.
  6. In the Bulgarian environment the above problem might sometimes have an alternative solution, namely – a British native-speaker teaching in TOEFL courses. Having in mind that sharing one mother tongue does not necessarily imply sharing one and the same culture, we could conclude that a British teacher is often a better choice than an American one because the former will also feel the specifics of the social practices adopted in the US.
  7. The analysis of the material shows that the TOEFL ( as well as many other standardized proficiency tests of English – cf. FCE) tests language proficiency as well as cultural awareness although it is often pointed out that culture should be subject to a different testing procedure. Still, in our opinion it is often absolutely impossible in cases of proficiency tests to divide language from cultural competence as it is intrinsically embedded into the use of the particular language.
  8. One additional point to be made here is that the preparatory TOEFL courses can successfully provide information about the social, educational, behavioral and political specifics in the US .
  9. Finally, we can conclude that the TOEFL aims at testing not only the language competence of non-native speakers of American English, but also their communicative competence which encompasses both linguistic competence and cultural awareness without which language cannot be used appropriately in different social contexts. So, the TOEFL reflects the general tendency in ELT which is to move further on from pure accuracy (or language competence) to pragmatic competence.

Pre-service teacher education in Bulgaria – critical evaluation

Written by: Diana Yankova, Irena Vassileva [toc class=”toc-right”] Aim.
The aim of the present study is to establish the correlation between the objective social needs for EL specialists, the students’ subjective motivation for taking up English language studies and their career expectations on the one hand, and the actual type of education in terms of knowledge and skills they are equipped with after graduating from the Bulgarian universities on the other, since, as is duly pointed out by Foldes (1994:3) “The market demand does not correlate automatically to the established social and individual needs as they may also be influenced, for example, by requirements of the educational system (administrative requirements, certificate recognition, etc.) or by tradition and prestige.”
The study is based on evaluation of: questionnaires to students and university lecturers, the existing curricula, job offers in terms of skills requirements, the need for teachers versus other career opportunities.

Critical analysis of ELT in Bulgaria.

High Schools.

The current ELT policy in Bulgaria has a long way to go. At present the bulk of practising teachers are either state-university graduates who have not been expressly trained for the job or people not qualified at all. At the same time, there is a marked shortage of EL specialists. It seems that Bulgarian educational authorities have no clear-cut FLT policy since there is no single compulsory FL in secondary and high school; students have to choose among available courses, contrary to tendencies in most European countries. The Ministry of Education has tried to prevent the influx of unqualified teachers into Bulgarian high schools by forbidding school authorities to appoint them. The students of English, on the other hand, are not fascinated by the idea of becoming secondary school teachers due to the low social prestige and payment of the job. The ensuing outcome is a further decline in the level of high school graduates as far as their knowledge of English is concerned, thus closing the vicious circle.

Pre-service teacher training.

The 50-year long tradition in English language and literature studies at university level has undoubtedly its strong points. Bulgarian universities have produced highly qualified English language specialists well-versed in linguistic theory and literary studies who have achieved considerable standards and international recognition of their academic research. All this, however, has been at the expense of more practically oriented teacher training programmes. Present curricula, adopted with practically no substantial variation by all state university English departments in the country, aim at providing students with comprehensive knowledge of the English language as a system and British and American literature in the course of 8 semesters (BA degree), followed by 2 semesters of specialized MA courses.

The BA course.

In contrast to current practice in other countries (e.g. Germany), graduate studies at Bulgarian Universities are English-language medium based with the aim of further developing students’ linguistic competence, which has proved to be both time-consuming and costly. This traditional practice is still adhered to in spite of the high general English admission level of the students (approximately Cambridge advanced).
The basic compulsory courses are covered during the first 6 semesters and the specialized courses (electives) appear as late as the 4th year. Compulsory courses may roughly be divided into the following categories with the respective percentage of overall teaching classes: General English (seminars on the lexical, grammatical and phonetic level of the language plus translation) – 47%; Linguistics (lectures and seminars) – 30%; Literature (British and American) – 20%; Culture studies – 3%.
The data presented above demonstrates clearly that the focus falls heavily on acquisition of linguistic competence, whereas recent ELT trends point to the precedence of pragmatic competence, thus courses such as “Shakespeare on Stage and Screen” have marked an economical attendance, to say the least.

The MA course

is based on the same assumption, at least as far as two of the electives are concerned: the ‘British studies’ programme includes predominantly British literature, the ‘American studies’ programme – American literature respectively, which is in total contradiction to the established fact that cross-cultural competence is an integral part of communicative competence.
Other MA courses include applied linguistics, and translation theory and practice. The applied linguistics course is highly theoretically oriented and far-fetched from any practical applications and no teacher-training course is offered at all.
Teacher-training qualification is compulsory for all university students of English as part of the BA degree and consists of general introductory courses in psychology, pedagogy, methods of ELT and observation of classroom lessons plus 5 weeks of teaching practice. The actual training students are subjected to reminds one of the English language education in Germany criticised by Edelhoff (1995:38) in the following way: “……very few (students) were educated to be intercultural learners and communicative classroom teachers”. And how could they be, having in mind the multitude and diversity of subjects they are made to study? Literature, linguistics and teacher training merged into one major turns graduates into Jacks-of-all-trade and least of all into FL teachers.
Attempts at ‘breaking the rules’ in terms of earlier specialization and orientation of students towards the teaching profession have recently been made by some private universities in Bulgaria. Their programmes pay particular attention to the specificities of ELT to various age groups, to learners with diverse needs (EGP, ESP) in different types of courses (intensive, extensive, etc.), which makes the students better equipped for teaching at all levels of the educational system up to university level. These universities seem to be on the right track in showing greater flexibility and adequate consideration of modern tendencies in teacher training by focusing on up-to-date interactive, co-operative, communicative and interdisciplinary approaches to foreign language teaching. Unfortunately, they are a drop in the ocean and besides, encounter a number of serious problems due to the limited number of students who enroll (as tuition is rather expensive) and the lower admission level of English.

Solutions and recommendations.

Obviously, there is a dire need for refocusing and reconceptualization of the whole basis on which ELT in Bulgaria functions. All the current socio-political, economic and technological changes have initiated new types of external and internal needs and motivation in the language learner. English-language specialists and educational authorities should reconsider the way English is taught. Language learning should get away from the static but still powerful, especially in Bulgaria, Latin or Greek model. A total discrepancy exists between students’ expectations and social demand for teachers on the one hand, and the qualifications of university graduates on the other. Questionnaires show that graduate students are not satisfied with the teacher qualification they obtain, neither are they fascinated by the idea of becoming high school teachers as the job has an unduly low social standing. University lecturers, on the other hand, do not seem particularly inclined to get away from the classical model of traditional philological instruction. Perhaps most of them simply feel comfortable enough in their old shoes?
At the same time, the conducted survey of job offers in Bulgarian media shows an ever increasing demand at present for EL teachers at all levels in both private and state institutions. High schools suffer an incredible shortage of ELT staff and are forced to offer other foreign languages, thus not being able to meet their students’ needs. Those needs, on their part, arise from the fact that it is practically impossible to get any decent job in Bulgaria without a good knowledge of English.
One way to remedy this situation seems to us to start with changes in syllabus design. From the onset of their university education students should be offered the possibility to choose between a more practically oriented teacher training course or predominantly theoretical linguistic/literary studies. This division of labor would benefit teacher training programmes immensely by providing time in the already tight students’ schedule for important courses such as ESP, materials design, culture studies, teaching English to various age groups, etc.
Besides being a comparatively new theoretical discipline, English for specific purposes finds more and more practical applications with the constant setting up of new specialized high schools and the springing up of new majors at Bulgarian universities such as public administration, management, business studies, etc. As our questionnaires show, there is a marked tendency for instrumental rather than integrative motivation with most Bulgarian learners of English. The needs of the different types of learners determine the content to be learnt, the skills to be acquired, the criteria for learners’ performance. Therefore, future teachers should be instructed how to teach English to lawyers, economists, engineers, etc. – something heretofore overlooked in the curriculum.
This leads to another very important aspect of teaching – that of materials design. With the exception of a few specialized EL schools in Bulgaria, other institutions make use of textbooks and materials produced mainly in Britain which, of course, cannot take into consideration students’ L1 and the possible points of collision between native and foreign language, i.e. those elements of L2 which are especially difficult for a speaker of Bulgarian to acquire. There is a number of English-Bulgarian contrastive studies that could be resorted to in designing textbooks with the aim of eliminating of L1-L2 negative transfer. We do not in any way wish to undermine the use of British and American textbooks, but rather endeavor to suggest that they should be complemented with teaching materials based on the established cultural and linguistic differences and similarities of the respective communities. Few educationalists, however, set about producing such materials perhaps because they find it time-consuming, low paid and not worth the trouble; and above all, because they have not been taught how to do it. Teachers are not equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills for materials development and on entering the teaching profession they tend to stick to the good old textbook approved by the Ministry of Education.
But as any good teacher is well aware, one way to keep learners interested, is going beyond the old chalk-and-talk method by providing more communicative, challenging, suited to learners’ needs activities. Instructing future teachers how to design their own materials and be creative would make the learning process more meaningful, more variegated, more made-to-measure. The choice of materials is not an end in itself, they should be made to work in the classroom and should be effective as representation of language as well as effective instruments of language learning. Teachers should be taught (!) that they themselves shoulder part of the responsibility of what is to be learnt, how it is to be learnt and how to take into account the particular target and learning situations. But first and foremost, language learning should be fun!
Yet another very important concept in FLT is cross-cultural learning. The crux of communication is the capacity of people from different cultural backgrounds to interact. Communicative competence encompasses not only linguistic competence but also cultural awareness without which language cannot be used appropriately in different social contexts. Teachers-to-be should be encouraged to take the role of intercultural interpreters by providing them with the knowledge and skills to digest and relay the socio-cultural environment of L2 community. They should have the capacity to deal with printed and electronic authentic materials which is the link of intercultural experience and facilitates the learning process.
Taking into account all the above considerations and incorporating them into pre-service teacher training programmes would raise the awareness of future teachers of learners’ needs in terms of age and professional interests, of teaching objectives and environment. It would make them more sensitive to ways of facilitating the transition from learning to acquiring a FL, and better equipped to show flexibility and creativity both in the immediate teaching context and in defining long-term goals. We are more than convinced that these measures will mark the right path towards raising the prestige of the teaching profession, which has for so long been looked down upon by society as a whole and neglected by state authorities in terms of funding.

Final remarks.

The general idea of the present study has been, in a nutshell, to locate, clarify and offer at least partial solutions to the current state of ELT and teacher-training courses in Bulgaria. We strongly believe that what is most needed is a substantial refocusing of curricula towards the inclusion of critical and social theory and the adoption of an interdisciplinary approach, without which ELT in this country would continue to lag behind global modern trends. And even more importantly, we do not consider this to be a problem only in Bulgaria, but also in many other countries all over the world. We sincerely hope that reading this article many educators might stop and think twice about the way English is taught.


Edelhoff, C. 1995: English Language Learning in Europe: Issues, Tasks and Problems. in Best of ELTECS, British Council.
Foldes, C. 1994: Deutsch als Fremdsprache in Mittel-, Ost- und Sudosteuropa. Uberlegungen zu Bestand und Bedarf. in: Deutsch als Fremdsprache 1, 3:12.