Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language

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Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language

When it comes to teaching a foreign language, a great deal of models and types are available. However, which ones are used often depends on what view one has on language acquisition and related factors such as end goals, age of the learners, and learning and teaching contexts, individual differences, environment, social situation etcetera. There are many different goals and purposes for learning a language. English is considered by many as a global language, in the sense that it is widely spoken in many parts of the world, in diverse contexts. In Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, Cook devotes a whole chapter to the different goals of language teaching and learning (194-213).
In particular he mentions three main goals for teaching: « Transitional language teaching » (206), teaching for « Language maintenance and bilingual language teaching » (207) all of which are directed towards people who, in this case, are in an English speaking society but with a different first language (L1), such as immigrants or exchange students. Cook expresses the three goals of teaching mentioned above, as « Central goals . . . within a society »(212). He further states career, higher education, travel as well as language as an aid in understanding research and information as « International goals » (207, 212). Lastly, he mentions the motivational and attitude related « individual goals » (209-10, 212) such as simply understanding the language or other cultures, which could be part of a curriculum as an academic subject.
In Swedish schools, English as a subject is introduced to students at an early age and it is a compulsory subject throughout the compulsory school up until the first level of English in upper secondary school (Skolverket F). The introduction of English in the curriculum for the compulsory school insists that languages are one of our best assets, and that knowing more than one language will improve our lives both professionally as well as personally. English can be found in many diverse social situations and it “surrounds us in our daily lives. . . » (Curriculum 32). This diversity is incorporated into the curriculum and teaching English « should aim at helping the pupils to develop knowledge of the English language and of the areas and contexts where English is used »(Curriculum 32). It is further stated that one of the main purposes of teaching is to encourage students to use the language with confidence (Kommentarmaterial 8). It can thus be argued that the Swedish curricula relates to both the international and individual goals mentioned above.

Approaches and Theories of Language Acquisition

There are many different theories of language acquisition, which in turn have given rise to different approaches to language teaching. Below is a brief introduction to three major theories/approaches.
● Behaviourism sees language as a behaviour which need to be taught. This theory was popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The most well known theorist connected to behaviourism was B.F Skinner. Behaviourism « explain(ed) language learning in terms of imitation, practice, reinforcement, and habit formation » (Lightbown and Spada, 34). This theory sees language learning as something external, it does not come from within but rather through the environment around us (Cook, 220-1).
● The Innatist perspective, on the other hand, is very much about the internal and the mind. The best known theorist in this area is Noam Chomsky, who proposed that we are all born with an innate language device which he calls ‘Universal Grammar’ (UG) (Lightbown and Spada, 15; Cook, 215). The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) is also part of this approach, which suggest that humans as well as animals are genetically programmed to acquire certain skills at certain times, over certain periods in our development. Furthermore, it is the Innatist’s belief that we only acquire a language during the critical period (approximately between birth to puberty), after that it has to be learnt. It is also suggested that without exposure to language during the CPH a language will never be developed properly (Lightbown and Spada 17-19). Thus, the innatist approach sees language as a biological function, the same as walking, and it does not need to be taught but it will come automatically with exposure to it. It can be argued that both the Common European Framework of Reference (henceforth CEFR, see 2.1.4) and the language syllabus for the Swedish school system are partially based on research supporting the innatist approach. In the comment material to the syllabus it is stated that knowledge of the language’s structure should be combined with an effort to understand, communicate and to express oneself in the language rather than to focus on separate building blocks, communication being the key factor, which in turn falls in line with the CEFR (Kommentarmaterial 6).
● There is a third approach also worth mentioning in this context. Both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were well known theorists within, what Lightbown and Spada entitle, « Interactionist/developmental perspectives » (19). This approach « focus(ed) on the interplay between the innate learning ability of children and the environment in which they develop » (Lightbown and Spada 19). Language learning and acquisition could be seen from the « interactionist/developmental » approach as a mix between the behaviourist approach and the innatist approach. Most importantly Piaget and Vygotsky believe that a language contains everything a child needs to be able to learn it (Lightbown and Spada 19). The child needs to use the language, practice and interact with the environment in which they live to be able to make use of the innate language device they are believed to be born with.

Models and Styles of Teaching

This study focuses on five different styles of teaching; the academic style, the audio-lingual style, the communicative style, the task-based style as well as the traditional EFL style. Table 1 below contains short descriptions of the five diverse styles in combination with their connection to the previously mentioned approaches to, and theories of, language acquisition.

What Constitutes Language Proficiency?

To become fully proficient in a language usually means that learners need to be able to read, listen, write and speak (known as the four main skills). In turn, this means that they need to master the related language systems: vocabulary, grammar, discourse, etcetera. From my own observations, it would seem that the areas of language proficiency which are given the most attention are usually reading, listening, writing and speaking. Vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation are often, but not always, seen as integral parts of the four main skills. The micro skills of interaction, comprehensibility and production are also seen as parts of language proficiency. Through extensive research, the Council of Europe has drafted the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The CEFR is a six level scale which helps define different levels of language proficiency (Cambridge E, Common European Framework of References for Languages). In general, The Swedish syllabus for English is based on criteria stated in the CEFR (Kommentarmaterial 6-7). Table 5 (section 3.1.1) contains the CEFR descriptions of proficiency levels; a good general view of what is considered proficiency in relation to different levels. The Swedish syllabus of English also highlights the importance of language in general, but it also contains some central aspects of learning English. According to Kommentarmaterial till Kursplanen i Engelska (as interpreted by the author of this essay) the three main parts of learning English are « Content of Communication », « Listening and Reading – Reception » and « Speaking, Writing and Converse – Production and Interaction » (11). As can be seen, the syllabus covers the four main skills in combination with the micro skills of comprehension, production and interaction. These three groups contain subdivisions with themes relating to society, culture, literature and so on. « Strategies » (Kommentarmaterial 15) are also seen as an element of learning English in Swedish schools, explained as conscious or unconscious strategies which students use to overcome difficulties and obstacles in their learning process. The strategies the students use are also seen as a means of continued progress for the students after having completed their English studies.


In this essay « assessment » is defined as the process of evaluating students’ knowledge and proficiency in English. In many cases, « testing » is part of the assessment process, and there are a number of different ways to test different elements of language knowledge. Tests and quizzes can thus cover a large part of the assessment. However, there are other ways of assessing language ability and factors of language proficiency. For example:

Self Assessment

« Self-assessment » (also known as self-evaluation) is an approach in which the students themselves evaluate their own work and progress. Rolheiser and Ross state that both their own studies and other research within this area shows that this method has positive effects on learning. Furthermore they argue that « self-evaluation » has an « impact on student performance through enhanced self-efficacy and increased intrinsic motivation ». A similar form of evaluation is « peer-evaluation » in which students evaluate each others’ work and efforts. It can be argued that feedback given in class to each other amongst the students is similar to peer-evaluation.

The Portfolio Model

The portfolio model could be described simply as a collection of a student’s previously assessed work, which is considered in the final assessment process. However as Mueller points out, « A portfolio is not the pile of student work that accumulates over a semester or year. Rather, a portfolio contains a purposefully selected subset of student work. »

Language Testing

In many cases a test is described as « an examination of somebody’s knowledge or ability, consisting of questions for them to answer or activities for them to perform » (Test). There are a number of ways of approaching language testing. One way to embark upon this subject is to consider the skills of language proficiency that are most often tested. Aspects of language ability such as vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation are often integrated into the four main skills (e.g. NTE and many of the Cambridge exams). What is tested is usually related to the objectives of language learning, such as end goals of the students or the teacher, the content of a syllabus or a course plan. Another way to approach language testing is the purpose of a test. Harmer mentions four different types of tests, all of which have specific intentions. He states that placement tests are used to test a learner’s level of knowledge in relation to either a syllabus or other types of teaching plans, while diagnostic tests are designed to reveal difficulties, knowledge gaps and inabilities. Progress tests evaluate learner’s progress in knowledge compared to goals and expectations such as those found in a syllabus. He also mentions proficiency tests which are supposed to show the ability and knowledge of a learner. The latter is often used to measure ability and to make sure a learner has reached certain levels of knowledge. The proficiency test is most likely to be taken at the end of a course as an examination (Harmer 321-2). This essay focuses on the proficiency type, as these tests (the Cambridge ESOL examinations and the NTE) have such qualities.


The Cambridge ESOL Examinations are one of many international proficiency testing systems. The Cambridge tests are used on an international level by many different people for many different reasons. They are internationally recognised and are often used as a criteria for international studies or for employment; thus, they are often offered as part of a school programme.
In the United Kingdom students take subject tests, the A-levels, on the same day nationally. The results from these tests determine a student’s grades, which means that in the United Kingdom grades are set on a national level. The A-level results are considered both when it comes to higher education and future employment, and thus play an important role in a student’s future. The NTE, on the other hand, is a proficiency test used solely within the Swedish school system. It is not viewed as an examination test but rather as an aid in the marking process. In comparison to the A-levels, the NTE results are only used as support material by the teachers who set the final marks, which means that a student’s grades are given on a local level. The NTE is therefore not viewed as important and influential as the A-levels are in the United Kingdom.

What is Tested?

Of all the different Cambridge examinations, the focus in this essay is on three of the “Cambridge For School” range because, as the name suggests, they are intended for use in schools. Apart from the most advanced level, the “First Certificate in English for Schools” (henceforth FCES), the “Cambridge for School” exams have been divided into three papers; reading and writing, listening, and speaking. The different papers test the appropriate micro skills of receptive ability, comprehension, production and interaction. The FCES test, in comparison, consists of four papers each covering the four main skills, in addition, there is a a fifth paper which tests grammar and vocabulary knowledge. The latter is one of the differences between the NTE and the Cambridge for School Exams (Skolverket A, B, C; Cambridge B, C, D). In terms of what is tested, both testing systems are fairly similar except for the specific focus on grammar and vocabulary in the FCES. The NTE for the Swedish compulsory school is also divided into three parts containing oral interaction and production, receptive abilities of reading and listening comprehension and written production. The NTE for the upper secondary school tests the same skills and abilities but instead of three papers there are four, one for each skill. The NTE is more focused on the « receptive, productive and interactive competencies » (Demaret) rather than technical aspects such as grammar and vocabulary (although these elements are not disregarded completely). Moreover, the NTE is also designed to correspond to the curriculum, though it does not comprise all of the requirements (Demaret). The themes and subjects of the test items are consistent with the aspects of the curriculum which do not belong to skills or elements of proficiency. For example, themes of the written assignments could be related to the cultural aspects of the curriculum or different types of spoken English could be used for the listening comprehension part (Demaret). Moreover, the above-mentioned tests (both the Cambridge tests and the NTE) are all linked to the same levels of proficiency (CEFR), ranging from A1 to the more advanced B2 or even C1 (criteria for the different levels can be found in table 5, section 3.1.1) (Kommentarmaterial 7 and Cambridge B, C, D).

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How Are Language Tests Constructed?

There are several aspects to consider when constructing a language test. Harmer introduces five steps which should be considered in the making of a test. First the conduct of the test needs to be taken into account; issues such as the time and place of the test and duration and time for marking it. Secondly, he points out, one has to decide what the test is actually going to test, what skills it is going to cover as well as what topics should be used and so on. Thirdly, he states that when using mixed item types, they need to be equally proportioned. He continues by emphasising the importance of « Weighting the scores » (328), which basically means that all the items should carry the same amount of weight in relation to each other. The last point he makes is that of piloting. He stresses the necessity of trying a test on other subjects before it is set to measure real test takers (Harmer 327-8). Although Harmer’s advice on constructing a test is directed towards teachers creating smaller tests, the fundamental process is still the same for test construction on a larger scale. One aspect of test construction which Harmer has not mentioned is the necessity of making sure that the content and test items match up to the initial intention of the test (Cambridge A). Reliability, score meaning and validity are also fundamental factors which need to be borne in mind for all types of tests.
The construction of a language test, the size of either the NTE or any of the Cambridge ESOL Exams, takes a vast amount of effort and time to produce, it is also an expensive procedure. Both the NTE and the Cambridge ESOL Exams take around two years to construct (Cambridge A, Ramstedt 19). The Cambridge ESOL Examinations are part of an internationally recognised testing system supported by extensive research. This in combination with the wide acceptance and use of the exams, leads to the supposition that they are valid and reliable. By comparing and contrasting some of the previously mentioned factors in relation to the NTE and the Cambridge testing system a notion of the status of the NTE will become visible.


Validity and reliability are interconnected aspects of a test’s design, construction and purpose. As Sireci comments on Lissitz and Samuelsen’s terminology regarding validity, “Any conceptualization of validity theory must acknowledge that what is to be validated is not a test itself but the use of the test for a particular purpose” (477). This relates to the definition of validity which Cambridge ESOL Examinations present in their Principles of Good Practice.
« Validity is generally defined as the extent to which an assessment can be shown to produce scores and/or outcomes which are an accurate reflection of the test taker’s true level of ability. »
Validity is a complex area which has changed over the years. Dörnyei highlights three kinds of validity mentioned by Chapelle in the 1999 Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. First there is « criterion validity » identified by the test’s relationship to a comparable measurement tool. « Content validity » is also mentioned, which is concerned with the content of a test. Thirdly « construct validity » is pointed out and is described as relating to the relationship between test results and the theory on which the test is based (Dörnyei 51). Dörnyei continues by highlighting the revised 1999 AERA, APA and NMCE Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, which brought together the three previously mentioned types of validation, including all of the previously mentioned qualities, under one common term, « construct validity » (Dörnyei 51).
Dörnyei continues to explain that this transformation was the outcome of a change in how validity was viewed. Instead of validity being considered a feature of the test, it has recently been seen as « considering . . . the truthfulness of the interpretation of the test scores » (51). As has been mentioned, construct validity comprises all three previously mentioned approaches to validity. However, according to Kane, this line of reasoning is complex with certain limitations. He suggests that an argument-based methodology to validation would address these limitations. He describes his own approach in terms of an interpretive argument followed by a validation argument. « The interpretive argument provides a framework for validation by outlining the inferences and assumptions to be evaluated » (Kane 8). The validity argument is then used to assess the credibility and consistency of the interpretive argument (Kane 8). The Cambridge testing system mentions construct validity in its Principles of Good Practice (25), which is considered to be part of the validity argument. Reliability is sometimes seen as part of a test’s validity (Dörnyei 52), which will be looked at next.


When looking up the word reliability in a dictionary, one usually gets a definition such as this:
« the extent to which an experiment, test, or measuring procedure yields the same results on repeated trials »
The Principles of Good Practice describes it like this:
« Reliability concerns the extent to which test results are stable, consistent and free from errors of measurement »
These descriptions are the basic meaning and purpose of test reliability. In Research Methods in Applied Linguistics, Dörnyei, referring to Bachman, states that « if difference in administrative procedures, changes in test takers over time, various forms of the test and difference in raters . . . cause inconsistencies, or measurement error, then our results are unreliable » (51). This explains the conscientious procedures in the administration of both the NTE and the Cambridge ESOL Examinations. They both have specific dates on which the tests take place, they also have strict guidelines on what aids the test takers are allowed. Furthermore, these tests take place in certain locations at set times. One aspect of the administration which differs between the NTE and the Cambridge ESOL Examinations is the correction procedures, in addition to who the raters/markers are.

Inter-rater Reliability and Marking Procedures

Central marking takes place with regards to Cambridge exams. The Cambridge testing system uses specialised and trained inspectors who mark parts of the tests with the marker only focusing on one part of the test. These markers go through the procedure not knowing anything about the test taker (Cambridge English First 19). The marker of the NTE (National Test of English) on the other hand often knows the students well. In addition, the teachers marking the test have not undergone any specialised training but rather rely on support material when marking. The marking of the NTE takes place locally and the individuals correcting and marking the test are most often the test takers’ teachers, though there is “a strong recommendation, but no formal demand, that this be done in collaboration with colleagues” (Erickson 1).
The markers of the Cambridge ESOL Exams have two mark schemes to follow, the Task-specific Mark Scheme and the General Mark Scheme, in combination with the nine-band marking scale presented by the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) (Key English Test 13; Cambridge English First 19, 21-26; IELTS). The teachers marking the NTE are provided with support material stating certain factors which they should focus on. This material does not contain a specific marking scale for the different grading levels but the teachers are instead referred to the grading criteria found in the syllabus. Additionally the teachers can make use of a comment material to the knowledge criteria which the Swedish National Agency for Education has developed (NAFS A, B, C). Even though both systems have very similar criteria which the markers look for, the processing, interpretation and analysing of these are different. It can be argued that the marking procedure of the NTE is not as structured and clear as the system of the Cambridge ESOL Exams. However, a ten-band marking scale has been introduced to the NTE marking procedure, in connection to the new 2011 curricula and syllabus, and the new grading system (Skolverket I).
According to an investigation initiated by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate, the consistency of test results relating to the NTE (especially the written production part) may be questioned because of deviational test results (Plunkett) and, thus, questions the inter-rater reliability of the NTE. Inter-rater reliability is concerned with the consistency of markers’ ratings (Trochim, Hewell et. al.). Both marking procedure and who the marker is are factors that could explain the above-mentioned deviations. The type of assessment material is also a factor which could contribute to inconsistencies. However, in addition to the newly introduced ten-band marking scale, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate have presented recommendations relating to the deviations mentioned above, such as clarifying the support material as well as introducing test taker anonymity in the marking process (Rekommendationer). The table below compares and contrasts the marking procedures of both the NTE and the Cambridge Examinations.

Table of contents :

1. Introduction and Research Questions
2. Literature Review
2.1 Teaching
2.1.1 Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language
2.1.2 Approaches and Theories of Language Acquisition
2.1.3 Models and Styles of Teaching
2.1.4 What Constitutes Language Proficiency?
2.2 Assessment
2.2.1 Self Assessment
2.2.2 The Portfolio Model
2.2.3 Foreign Language Testing
2.3 Testing
2.3.1 What is Tested?
2.3.2 How Are Language Tests Constructed?
2.3.3 Validity
2.3.4 Reliability Inter-rater Reliability and Marking Procedures
2.3.5 Score Meaning
2.3.6 Test Items
2.3.7 Purpose
2.3.8 Fairness
2.3.9 The Washback Effect
3. The Study
3.1 Structure and Conduct – Primary Data Gathering
3.1.1 Subjects
3.1.2 Structure and Conduct – Questionnaire
3.1.3 Structure and Conduct – Interviews
3.1.4 Limitations and Analysis of Primary Data Collection
3.2 The Results – A Summary of Main Item Responses
3.3 Discussion
3.3.1 Research Question I – What do teachers working within the Swedish school system teach when they teach English, and how do they teach? A) – How do they assess their students’ proficiency?
3.3.2 Research Question II – What are the teachers’ personal opinions of the NTE? A) – How do they prepare their students for the NTE? B) – Is the NTE regarded as a reliable and valid grading aid by the teachers who use it, and what status does it hold in contrast to the Cambridge testing system?
3.3.3 Research Question III – What does the interrelation of teaching, testing and assessing EFL in the Swedish school system appear to be?
Works Cited
I. Questionnaire
II. Interviews
III. Web – Cambridge, Demaret and Skolverket


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