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  • a pair of hands typing at a laptop
    • English language testing
    • Technology and the future

    Explaining computerized English testing in plain English

    By Pearson Languages

    Research has shown that automated scoring can give more reliable and objective results than human examiners when evaluating a person’s mastery of English. This is because an automated scoring system is impartial, unlike humans, who can be influenced by irrelevant factors such as a test taker’s appearance or body language. Additionally, automated scoring treats regional accents equally, unlike human examiners who may favor accents they are more familiar with. Automated scoring also allows individual features of a spoken or written test question response to be analyzed independent of one another, so that a weakness in one area of language does not affect the scoring of other areas.

    PTE Academic was created in response to the demand for a more accurate, objective, secure and relevant test of English. Our automated scoring system is a central feature of the test, and vital to ensuring the delivery of accurate, objective and relevant results – no matter who the test-taker is or where the test is taken.

    Development and validation of the scoring system to ensure accuracy

    PTE Academic’s automated scoring system was developed after extensive research and field testing. A prototype test was developed and administered to a sample of more than 10,000 test takers from 158 different countries, speaking 126 different native languages. This data was collected and used to train the automated scoring engines for both the written and spoken PTE Academic items.

    To do this, multiple trained human markers assess each answer. Those results are used as the training material for machine learning algorithms, similar to those used by systems like Google Search or Apple’s Siri. The model makes initial guesses as to the scores each response should get, then consults the actual scores to see well how it did, adjusts itself in a few directions, then goes through the training set over and over again, adjusting and improving until it arrives at a maximally correct solution – a solution that ideally gets very close to predicting the set of human ratings.

    Once trained up and performing at a high level, this model is used as a marking algorithm, able to score new responses just like human markers would. Correlations between scores given by this system and trained human markers are quite high. The standard error of measurement between Pearson’s system and a human rater is less than that between one human rater and another – in other words, the machine scores are more accurate than those given by a pair of human raters, because much of the bias and unreliability has been squeezed out of them. In general, you can think of a machine scoring system as one that takes the best stuff out of human ratings, then acts like an idealized human marker.

    Pearson conducts scoring validation studies to ensure that the machine scores are consistently comparable to ratings given by skilled human raters. Here, a new set of test-taker responses (never seen by the machine) are scored by both human raters and by the automated scoring system. Research has demonstrated that the automated scoring technology underlying PTE Academic produces scores comparable to those obtained from careful human experts. This means that the automated system “acts” like a human rater when assessing test takers’ language skills, but does so with a machine's precision, consistency and objectivity.

    Scoring speaking responses with Pearson’s Ordinate technology

    The spoken portion of PTE Academic is automatically scored using Pearson’s Ordinate technology. Ordinate technology results from years of research in speech recognition, statistical modeling, linguistics and testing theory. The technology uses a proprietary speech processing system that is specifically designed to analyze and automatically score speech from fluent and second-language English speakers. The Ordinate scoring system collects hundreds of pieces of information from the test takers’ spoken responses in addition to just the words, such as pace, timing and rhythm, as well as the power of their voice, emphasis, intonation and accuracy of pronunciation. It is trained to recognize even somewhat mispronounced words, and quickly evaluates the content, relevance and coherence of the response. In particular, the meaning of the spoken response is evaluated, making it possible for these models to assess whether or not what was said deserves a high score.

    Scoring writing responses with Intelligent Essay Assessor™ (IEA)

    The written portion of PTE Academic is scored using the Intelligent Essay Assessor™ (IEA), an automated scoring tool powered by Pearson’s state-of-the-art Knowledge Analysis Technologies™ (KAT) engine. Based on more than 20 years of research and development, the KAT engine automatically evaluates the meaning of text, such as an essay written by a student in response to a particular prompt. The KAT engine evaluates writing as accurately as skilled human raters using a proprietary application of the mathematical approach known as Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA). LSA evaluates the meaning of language by analyzing large bodies of relevant text and their meanings. Therefore, using LSA, the KAT engine can understand the meaning of text much like a human.

    What aspects of English does PTE Academic assess?

  • A child and parent laying on a carpet staring at eachother and smiling
    • Inclusivity and wellbeing

    Mindfulness activities for kids to reduce stress

    By Pearson Languages

    How can we help children (and ourselves) deal with turbulent situations?

    As humans, we are programmed to position ourselves according to the constants around us: people, structures and boundaries. When those constants shift, it can be unsettling for adults and children.

    Sometimes we find ourselves in unprecedented situations, and we each have our own approach to managing things. If you feel confused and without direction because of a turbulent situation, please know that that is okay.

    We’ll look today at why that is, to help us understand ourselves a little more and why these simple mindfulness activities can help us navigate it.

    What causes social stress?

    There may be many reasons for feeling stressed in life, but during turbulent times in society, it is often due to not feeling safe.

    Something in our environment is alerting our survival instinct. This makes our brains produce stress hormones, which get us ready to fight the threat, run from it, or freeze until it’s gone away.

    The threat might be to our physical or even social survival – and the two are linked. Things can feel even scarier when we also feel isolated from our social group, which keeps us protected from that threat.

    Human beings are social by nature. We live and work in communities, we connect through love and empathy and we protect each other. There’s truth to the saying “there’s safety in numbers”.

    But it’s not just about safety. We also define ourselves by comparing ourselves to others and working out what we are not.

    Research has found that we identify deeply with our role in society and the ‘pack’ to which we belong. This holds deep ties with our sense of safety, contentment and self-esteem. If the boundaries by which we define and position ourselves have shifted or continue to shift, we will feel unsafe, threatened and therefore stressed.

    Are children affected by social stress in the same way?

    If we then apply this to children, the constants to whom they look for security are the adults in their life. If the adults are behaving differently, the children will feel a shift and feel unsafe and stressed too. If they don’t have their friends alongside them for social positioning, this too can lead to them feeling confused and uncertain.

    Here are some key ways we can help:

    Communicating and listening

    Children may often lack the language to express what they are feeling, or even to recognize it themselves. Therefore, we must offer ways to help them make sense of the world around them, to help them feel safe and to help express their concerns.

    Communication provides the necessary social interaction and models for them on how to handle the new situation. It firms up their boundaries, and provides a safe space where they feel listened to and acknowledged and this, in turn, helps diffuse their stress.

    The activity below is a lovely way to invite children to express any worry they might be feeling, mindfully and with support – and give them something to do with their feelings. It also has the benefit of helping them breathe fully and slowly, which will calm down their nervous system.

    Breath activity: Worry bubbles

    1. Sit together and invite your child to put their palms together.
    2. Invite them to take a big breath in. As they breathe in, they can draw their palms further and further apart, spreading their fingers as they imagine blowing up a big bubble between their hands.
    3. Invite them to whisper a worry into the bubble.
    4. Invite them to blow the breath out nice and slowly. As they breathe out, they can imagine blowing the bubble (and the worry) away with a big sigh.
    5. Twinkle the fingers back down to the lap, and start again, either with the same worry or a new one

    Helping them find a safety anchor inside themselves

    By helping children focus on breathing, we can teach them that even if things feel wobbly around them, their breath is always there. The act of focusing on the breath also helps settle the fight or flight branch of their nervous system into a calmer, more balanced state.

    Breath Activity: Counting breaths

    1. Invite your child to sit with you.
    2. Invite them to place their hands on their tummy and breathe in slowly so they push into their hands, counting slowly up to four.
    3. As they breathe out, invite them to count up to six, as they slowly empty the belly and their hands lower back down.
    4. Continue until they feel calmer. You can do this every morning or evening to help sustain balance. With younger children, they might like a teddy on their tummy to push up and down!

    These two activities can be lovely daily practices to try and provide some safety and structure to your child or students’ mental health right now. They are also enjoyable activities to try for yourself – you may like to increase the in and out count of the breath a little bit for an adult breath.

  • A hand writing on paper on a desk
    • Teaching trends and techniques

    7 tips for teaching English to beginners

    By Pearson Languages

    Teaching beginners can be daunting, especially when it’s a monolingual group and you know nothing of their language, or it’s a multilingual group and the only common language is the English you’ve been tasked with teaching them. Nevertheless, not only is it possible to teach beginners only through English, but it can also be one of the most rewarding levels to teach. To help you succeed in setting your learners firmly on the path to increasing proficiency, here are seven tips for teaching English to beginners.

    1. Keep instructions clear and simple

    When addressing a class of students, especially ones you’ve just met, it can be tempting to explain activities in your politest language. After all, no one likes to be rude. However, a student who has only a few words of English, if any at all, won’t appreciate the courtesy of (or even understand), “OK, so now what I’d like you all to do, if you don’t mind, is just to stand up for a moment and come to the front of the class. Oh, and please bring your book with you. Could we all do that?”

    Instead, make instructions crystal clear by using as few words as necessary, gesturing whenever possible, and breaking down a series of instructions into smaller units. If you want to be polite, “please” and “thank you” will do. “Everybody – take your book, please. Stand up. Now, come here, please. Thank you.”

    2. Let them listen first

    Your students will likely want to start practicing speaking from the get-go. However, it takes a while for one’s ear to acclimatize to the sounds of a new language, and not everyone will be so keen; don’t pressure students into speaking before they’ve had lots of opportunity to listen to you using it (which doesn’t mean you should just be rambling on at the front of the classroom – with beginners more so than with other levels, you really have to consider what you say and grade your language accordingly).

    3. Drill, repeat, drill, repeat, drill…

    Beginners need lots of repetition and drilling, especially as they get to grips with the sounds of their new language. It might seem boring to go over the same sentences again and again, but it is necessary. When practicing a new sentence, try back-drilling, breaking the sentence down into manageable units and then building it back up, working backwards from the end to the beginning; this helps ensure that your intonation is natural and that you get elements of connected speech right. For example, break down “Would you like a cup of tea?” as follows:

    tea > cup of tea > like a > like a cup of tea > Would you > Would you like a cup of tea?

    4. Establish classroom language early on

    Classroom language – Can you speak more slowly? What do we have to do? I don’t understand. What does… mean? How do you say… in English? – is usually associated with teaching children, but it also helps with adult beginners. No matter how friendly and relaxed you make your classroom atmosphere, learning a new language can still be daunting, especially when you feel you’re not entirely following what’s going on, or that you might be called on to say something that you don’t feel ready to say. It’s much better to equip students early on with classroom language that will help them navigate the lesson smoothly.

    5. Avoid metalanguage

    There’s no point in students knowing the terms past simple, irregular verb or adverb of frequency if they can’t use the actual structures or words they refer to. Don’t tell them how to say something: show them. Give as much context as you can (visual prompts work well).

    Furthermore, make sure you check they have understood by asking questions that test their comprehension – never ask “Do you understand?” as:

    a) many people are reluctant to let on that they haven’t understood and will pretend instead that they have

    b) a student may think they have understood when in fact they haven’t.

    6. Don’t forget that your students are fluent in their own language(s)

    This may seem trivial, but it’s all too easy when listening to somebody speaking broken English to forget that behind the errors and the mispronunciation is a person with cogent thoughts, no doubt articulate in their first language, attempting to communicate their opinions or ideas.

    As teachers, we not only have to be patient and proactive listeners, alert to the reasons why specific errors are being made while filling in the gaps in less-than-perfect communication, but we also have to steer clear of adopting the 'Me-Tarzan-You-Jane' approach to teaching, degenerating the very language we are aiming to teach.

    Rather than degrading our language, we have to grade it carefully to keep it comprehensible while maintaining its naturalness, rhythm and spirit, ensuring all the while that, as far as possible, we actually converse with our students and listen to what they have to say. After all, even from the very first lessons, from the ‘A’ in the alphabet and the ‘am’ of ‘to be’, communication is the goal.

    7. Prepare well, prepare a lot, keep them talking

    Even though teaching beginners entails progressing slowly and recycling and repeating language many times, that doesn’t mean recycling the same activities, especially not during one lesson. Ensure you have a range of activities to use, and don’t go into class without having first carefully thought through how you are going to introduce a new language, how you will check that the students have understood it, how you will practice it, and how you will deal with potential misunderstandings. The possibility for confusion at this level is much greater than at higher levels, and sometimes even harder to disentangle.

    Also, remember, unlike with higher levels, you can’t rely on conversations developing simply because the students don’t yet have the linguistic resources to engage in anything other than simple exchanges (though in time, they will). This means that the onus will largely be on you to keep them talking.

    Finally, enjoy this level. Although in many ways the most challenging level to teach, it can also be one of the most satisfying. Seeing your learners go from knowing nothing to knowing a few words to knowing a few sentences and structures to being able to hold rudimentary conversations can be incredibly rewarding. If they enjoy their initial exposure to the language, and feel confident and inspired to continue, then you will have helped pave the way to their further success.

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