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Speaking Up

China has set new standards for English learning that aim to put an end to the days when students could pass a test, but not actually speak

By NewsChina Updated Jun.5

Since the early 1980s, students all over China have been eager to study English, and to cater to the demand, there were a myriad of courses and methods – not all successful. The craze for English study persists to this day, and is even more appealing as China’s international engagement increases. Yet, the shortage of qualified English speakers continues to impede China’s global reach, due to the over-reliance on learning long lists of vocabulary to pass exams, rather than practical application of language. 
New guidelines on effective English learning, the Standards of English Language Capability, were released on April 12 by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the State Language Commission. They are set to take effect from June 1. As China’s first national evaluation standards for English proficiency, the guidelines apply to English learners at all levels, and constitute a major switch in focus to the assessment of language use capabilities.

Practical Approach  

Wu Sha, director of the foreign language testing sector of the National Education Examinations Authority under the MOE, told NewsChina that the State Council announced a directive in September 2014 that was intended to readjust the criteria by which students are accepted into all levels of education, which is decided by sitting a rigorous entrance examination. The most notorious is the fiercely competitive annual national college entrance examination, or gaokao, which students spend years preparing for, and which decides their fate, for better or worse. 
Education authorities vowed to reform the system and separate exams from enrollment into all levels of educational institution. The directive specified clearly that at the national level, there was a need to deepen reform in foreign language teaching and exams, and it proposed the concept of “foreign language proficiency.” 

In response, the MOE set targets to construct a modern foreign language evaluation system with unified standards and multiple functions. The English proficiency standards are the initial achievements of the reform.  

Wu said that alongside China’s stronger presence in the world arena and the rapid growth of international tourism and communication, a growing number of international meetings have been held in China, so it is urgent to train more “international talent and their most basic capability is the proficiency in English.” She added that the level of foreign language proficiency as a whole leaves much to be desired. Over the years, Chinese foreign language learners have been notoriously good at exams, but weak in actually using the language. 
In November 2017, the EP English Proficiency Index, one of the world’s largest rankings of countries by English skills, placed China 36 out of 80 non-English-speaking countries and regions. China scored 52.45 points, putting it in the low English proficiency category.  

It stated that the average level of English language skills of Chinese people is only good enough to understand song lyrics, write emails on familiar topics, or communicate when traveling to English-speaking countries. Learners are far from being able to speak English for work or read advanced English material at ease. 
Wu added that there are a number of English tests with different standards in China which are not well linked. To make matters worse, language teaching, language learning and language testing are performed separately, which fails to reflect overall language competence, in particular the language use capabilities of second-language learners. The new standards, she said, will test practical skills in the use of  
English, rather than the skills of taking tests. 

Back to Basics  

Liu Jianda, vice-president of Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, told NewsChina the English proficiency standards aim to “bring English teaching back to its original purpose” by providing a bridge to connect the multiple English exams in China. “The reform this time will play a pivotal role,” he said. 

Liu, 51, chief academic adviser for the English proficiency standards, has been working in the English testing field in China for the past several decades. He told our reporter it was an enormous challenge for the expert team, comprised of more than 200 professors, to design the new standards. 

In June 2014, the expert group started drafting the reform guidelines. They debated issues such as how to define language ability, how to design the standards to suit Chinese language learners, and how to make it recognizable worldwide. 
According to the National Education Examinations Authority, experts were divided into eight groups to study influential language evaluation standards worldwide, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in Europe. 
Liu said that Japan had copied CEFR, but that 80 percent of language learners in the country could only reach A1 and A2, the basic level, and only 20 percent could attain the intermediate level of B1 and B2. Very few language learners could achieve the advanced level of C1 and C2. 

The Japanese experience motivated the expert team to establish standards to better suit the Chinese environment. These new standards will remove the over-reliance on reading and writing and give priority to the testing of practical language use. Before designing the standards, the expert group spent three years collecting data from 160,000 students and teachers and conducted empirical studies at over 1,500 schools at various levels in 28 provinces and regions.  

The new standards define three categories of English language capabilities – basic, intermediate and advanced. Each level has three scales, which apply to all levels of English learners from elementary and secondary schools as well as universities, up to a near-native level.  

The standards have detailed requirements for listening, speaking, reading and writing. For the first time, it covers practical aspects of language use, including cross-cultural communication, familiarity with overseas cultures, and translation skills.
Han Baocheng, a language testing professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told NewsChina the new standards will provide a reference for English language learners at various levels who will be able to assess their learning outcomes by themselves more precisely and efficiently. “It will make a difference to improve exam quality, better connect with overseas exams and offer feedback on teaching results,” he said. 

Testing Times 

Nowadays in China, college students majoring in English are required to sit College English Tests (CET), which are comprised of two levels, CET4 and CET6. At most universities, CET4 is a prerequisite for graduation. 
For those eager to study abroad or emigrate, other English language tests, including the British-Australian IELTS or the American TOEFL test are basic requirements. After the introduction of the new proficiency standards, speculation has been rife over whether CET4 and CET6 will be replaced and what impact the reform will bring to language teaching and exams.
Wu Sha told our reporter that the education sector and the job market have been using CET4 and CET6 as references for many years, and are widely recognized in Chinese society. “To this day there is no agreement on whether they will be abolished. The decision will be made after thorough consideration,” she said. “The education authority, however, may integrate some language tests in the future on the basis of the new standards.” 

She added that because Chinese education has been exam-oriented for such a long time, it is hard to predict whether there will be pushback from society. “It’s not just in China, all across Asia there are similar problems in English exams,” she said, adding that she hoped students, parents and teachers would see the reform rationally.
Cao Li, professor of English language and American literature at Tsinghua University, said establishing unified standards of English proficiency in China will help promote communication and mutual recognition among the creators of various English tests in China and those that are better-known globally, such as IELTS and TOEFL. “China’s standards in testing English language ability can also be used globally,” she told China Daily.
In December 2016, Chen Baosheng, head of the MOE, signed agreements with Cambridge, which organizes IELTS in the UK, to connect China’s English proficiency standards with IELTS. It is expected to be completed by the end of 2018. The connection with TOEFL is expected to be fulfilled in 2019. 
According to Barry O’Sullivan, head of Assessment Research and Development at the British Council, which administers IELTS in China, the listening comprehension component of the test has already been standardized with China’s new language proficiency standards. He said that time will tell if this collaboration is a success or not, noting that it took repeated testing before CEFR was fully introduced in Europe.