Vol. 4. No. 3 Response May 2000
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Author's Response to S. Myers' Review of

Toward Speaking Excellence
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press (1998)

Author's comments:

As the author of Toward Speaking Excellence: The Michigan Guide to Maximizing Your Performance on the TSE Test and SPEAK Test, I was pleased to see a book review appear in TESL-EJ (Vol. 4, No. 2, October, 1999). Sharon Myers provided a nice overview of the book and her remarks stating that it is "very thorough and user-friendly" are appreciated. It also appears that a number of comments in the review seem to be directed at the test rather than the book, so perhaps some details about the test itself and the pedagogical underpinnings of the book would prove useful.

Myers suggests that test preparation is inappropriate because the TSE (Test of Spoken English) is not an exam covering content from a specific course. Perhaps the confusion here deals with the difference between knowledge testing and performance testing. Performance testing goes beyond cognitive understanding in that it requires performing specific actions. In the case of the TSE, the examinee is asked to perform oral English responses to various questions. Being test-wise so as to understand the expectations, limitations, testing strategies, and rating criteria are just as valuable for performance testing as they are for testing content knowledge. Myers also appears concerned about the strategies suggested for organizing responses. Yet, speech patterns are prevalent in our culture. There are specific structures for writing essays, resumes, and business letters. There are accepted structures for giving speeches, introducing speakers, giving a sales pitch, and preaching. Standardized tests themselves are based on specifications or templates and even TESL-EJ recommends the Review Style Guidelines for book reviews. It would seem unfair not to teach effective organizational structures in the name of spontaneous speech. Spontaneity refers to responding from a natural feeling from within. Spontaneity is not equivalent to being without communicative strategies. Native speakers generally bring culturally appropriate strategies to their communication encounters. It should not be assumed that the natural feelings and tendencies of non-native speakers of English will be the same or even culturally acceptable to native speakers. Perhaps Myers' complaint is a misunderstanding of what spontaneity is, or perhaps she would like the TSE scoring rubric to consider spontaneity more explicitly. [-1-]

Myers also points out that the TSE "diminishes the need for listening comprehension." Her unhappiness stems from the fact that the examinees are provided with the test questions in writing, nevertheless, the TSE does not claim to measure listening ability. Score users can refer to the listening section of TOEFL for an indication of listening ability if so desired. Perhaps what Myers is really suggesting is that TSE score users use both the TSE and the TOEFL listening score in their decision making processes.

It appears that Myers has misinterpreted some of the suggestions given for the warm-up questions. Even though warm-up questions are not rated, I have seen many examinees become nervous during this part of the test. It is the testing environment, not testing strategies, that cause nervousness. I believe the practice the book provides will help calm the nerves of examinees and help them perform more naturally at their true level. Only 10 seconds are allotted for responses to these warm-up questions, not a lot of time to be creative and spontaneous. So the book advises examinees to give "short, complete answers." In my experience, when examinees have finished what they are saying, they are tempted to keep speaking because they feel compelled to do so due to the testing environment, not due to a desire to produce more spontaneous speech. This "fill-up the time" speaking is not necessarily better for its spontaneity and often not an accurate representation of the examinee's speaking ability. Perhaps this is Myers' way of saying she would prefer a live, interactive test rather than a semi-direct test such as the TSE.

The review also raises questions regarding discourse markers and transitions. Myers feels that teaching and practicing expressions such as although and while "limits" an examinee. It is the book's intent to introduce the effectiveness of discourse markers to examinees and thereby broaden their usage. Examples are not intended to box the examinee into using a set of fixed expressions, but to provide tools for them to chose from to more effectively express themselves. Once examinees see the importance and power of discourse markers, they can learn to expand their own use of them.

Later Myers supposes that discourse markers tend to simplify complex issues. She encourages examinees to produce what she terms "nuanced responses." Again, this apparently reflects her dislike of the TSE itself in that 60-second responses don't generally lend themselves to nuanced responses. The organizational strategies that the book presents help examinees deal with the time constraints of the testing situation. The TSE also includes items that ask examinees their opinions. On some issues, examinees may not have strong opinions. This may put them at a disadvantage compared to those test takers who do have clear-cut opinions. So to choose to advocate a certain side may be a good strategy for some examinees. Myers argues that examinees won't be able to select only "those facts about physics or economics" that they want to teach. However, TSE questions asking for opinions are not asking for facts, and all opinions clearly expressed are to be accepted according to the scoring guidelines. Perhaps Myers would like the TSE to stick to facts rather than delve into opinion questions. The TSE doesn't try to measure an examinee's actual opinion, just how well opinions can be expressed. Just as instructors need to be able to share competing theories and medical professionals need to share competing diagnoses or treatments, the TSE allows for examinees to share opinions without measuring how strongly that opinion is believed in. Advocating a specific side of an issue does not "subvert" communicative competence as Myers suggests. [-2-]

At times Myers seems to fail to make connections between test taking strategies and real life communication. For example, Myers is "amused" that test takers are encouraged to end a roleplay calling for persuasion on a positive note. This concept of positive language is not limited to the testing context, but can be important for instructors trying to motivate students or doctors trying to encourage patients to follow through with specific treatments.

Myers states her belief that describing graphs is more relevant and therefore a better test question than narrating a story. Again this reflects her opinions regarding the TSE itself, rather than the book she is reviewing. Overall Myers feels the practice questions provided in the book are similar to what would be found on the TSE. She does list a few questions which she feels require more cultural knowledge of the United States than ETS would allow. This is probably true, but these questions were intentionally included in the book as a teaching tool and to provide discussion to liven up classroom use of the book.

At the end of the review Myers shares some of her feelings about how TSE scores are used. Apparently she believes that utilizing organizational structures and spontaneity are mutually exclusive. The premise of this book is that organizational structures enable examinees to more clearly and accurately express themselves, not to "disguise their real competence." Communicative strategies are tools to be used by examinees in responding to questions. Myers is worried that examinees who pass will "be faced with demands they are not ready to fulfill." This view does not take into account that the communicative strategies that are taught are transferable to teaching and professional contexts. The book is a resource for examinees, but ultimately, they must do their own talking, and pass or fail based on their own speech samples. Myers provides two scenarios, a lab TA supervising students using dangerous equipment, and medical personnel communicating information. She is concerned that examinees with the skills to pass the TSE would not have the skills to perform well in these scenarios. Again this appears to be a question about the TSE, not the book, specifically whether the test is a good predictor of on-the-job language ability, or whether the cut-off scores institutions decide to use are appropriate.

Toward Speaking Excellence was based upon my experience listening to hundreds of actual SPEAK (Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit) responses, working with dozens of students who are preparing for the SPEAK, and from research findings such as the The Revised Test of Spoken English (TSE): Discourse Analysis of Native Speaker and Nonnative Speaker Data (Lazarton & Wagner, 1996). The book emphasizes clear communication. Teaching discourse organization and audience awareness should not be viewed as an enemy of spontaneity, but a tool for effective communication. Structure and strategies serve to give guidance and confidence to learners. Perhaps a clear distinction should be made between Toward Speaking Excellence and the TSE and SPEAK tests themselves. It may be true that these tests do not include spontaneity or listening in the scoring rubric, or that certain test questions are not more relevant to professional life, or that the limited response time inhibits nuanced responses, or that examinees usually take the test under extreme pressure to pass, or that the test or the cut-off scores may not be appropriate. [-3-] Yet these criticisms are of the tests and should not detract from Toward Speaking Excellence. Since its publication I have heard from many learners about how clearly the book explained to them areas of the test that before seemed mysterious. I have also been thanked by instructors because they appreciate a ready source of practice materials based on sound communicative strategies that are motivating to their students who are preparing for these tests. Ideally learners can use the book while they work with instructors. The book can provide strategies and structure, instructors can provide pronunciation, clues to contextual appropriateness, and other valuable feedback.

If you have any questions about Toward Speaking Excellence, feel free to contact me.


Lazarton, A., & Wagner. (1996). The Revised Test of Spoken English (TSE): Discourse Analysis of Native Speaker and Nonnative Speaker Data. TOEFL Monograph Series #7. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Dean Papajohn
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Reviewer's response:

Papajohn is right to distinguish the TSE as a performance test rather than a "knowledge" test and thus not appropriately compared to "an exam covering content from a specific course." However, insofar as his practice TSE exams provide canned alternative expressions very specifically aimed at TSE test items, they may indeed significantly improve the scores of examinees who have practiced using his book relative to the scores of those not so prepped.

I don't believe that the students who will buy this book are looking for an instructional text to teach them "communicative strategies" for their general English use, or for "culturally appropriate srategies" for all their "communication encounters," but rather for the shortest, most efficient formulas that will get them through the TSE. Providing precisely the discourse markers appropriate to just those contexts in the test items is not the same as teaching discourse markers in general, and producing them in response to these test-specific instructions is not necessarily a sign that they have been acquired for productive use in other contexts. The fact that the test lends itself so easily to relatively few expressions is indeed a weakness of the test.

Papajohn is right in noting that I included some criticism of the TSE itself in my review of his book (for example, I criticize the fact that the questions are given in writing, and I thought that the graph task was a good one). However, my main contention was, and still is, that the book subtracts from the value of the TSE insofar as it artificially shapes the answers of examinees at the expense of what would have been their natural responses.

Sharon Myers
Texas Tech University
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