Category Archives: English Language Teaching

How the competition in English fails students and teachers

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” – David Morrison

Since I became a teacher some thirteen years ago, I have been listening to teachers bemoan the competition in English organized by the Croatian Education and Teacher Training Agency (AZOO), whether at elementary or high school level. I know a number of colleagues who have sent letters of complaint throughout these years, and I know a few who were at some point members of the National Committee for the Competition and who tried to change the system from within. Obviously and unfortunately, the letters and the attempts were in vain.

What are the major complaints? That the tests are too difficult, that some tasks are inappropriate, that there are answers that should be accepted, but aren’t, that elementary school students only get to compete in grade 8, and – perhaps most important – that a great number of fantastic students don’t feel they “know” English well upon taking the test.

My discontent with the competition was dormant for a couple of years as I no longer worked in elementary school, but it culminated in 2020 when I realized that nothing has changed in more than a decade. That is when I thoroughly analyzed the test for the school level of the competition in grade 8 in 2020, as well as the regulations regarding the work of the Committee. The whole investigation is available on my site, so I will not go into all the details here. Rather, I’ll focus on the key findings in form of a list that shows all the ways the competition fails students and teachers.

1) There is no record of the goal of the competition. Is it to test grammar, to identify talented students, to measure communicative competence? How can a student work toward a goal if they don’t know what it is?

2) Similar to the previous point, there is no catalog of what students need to know or be able to do in order to do well in the competition. This means that students and their teachers know neither what the goal is nor the means to achieve that goal; in other words, they don’t know what to do to prepare for the competition.

3) Tests in the competition include tasks that are several levels above the students’ target level. Some may say this is fine because the competition is for the best students who we presume are above the target level, but that level should be defined, along with the goal and catalog of knowledge and skills.

4) Many tasks on the tests in the competition are inspired by those found in Cambridge ESOL exams (FCE, CAE, CPE). Each of the Cambridge exams has a very specific format, and a number of tasks found in those exams is usually not used in regular English classes in Croatia. Learners who want to take a Cambridge exam know well that they have to prepare for it – not just by learning the language but by learning the format of the exam as this has a major impact on how well they will do on the exam. Hence, the tasks in the competition are not very familiar to our students who are not preparing for a Cambridge exam.

5) We don’t know the goal of the competition so it is difficult to ruminate on which tasks would be appropriate for it, but I’m sure they should be aimed at testing communicative competence and not isolated skills, such as grammatical competence. Students are taught in line with the communicative approach, but that is not how they are tested in the competition.

6) The instructions for the competition state that culture is an essential part of the test in the competition. We all know that culture is intertwined with language – there’s no question about it. Thus, intercultural competence is considered a part of overall communicative competence and should be developed and assessed. However, the culture task in the competition doesn’t assess intercultural competence but rather tests students’ knowledge of historical and geographical facts. In 2020, it tested students’ familiarity with London, exclusively. After eight years of learning English, will facts about London help the student get their message across in English? (Consider this question especially in light of the fact that there are three times more non-native than native speakers.)

7) The work of the Committee is not transparent. The Agency has confirmed that the Committee doesn’t keep minutes of their meetings and that the reports on their work are – lost. Without these, it is impossible to know which issues they faced and whether and how they addressed them. Furthermore, there are around twenty members of the Committee, and it is not clear who does what; for example, I know that one person deigns the test, and one more takes a look at it, but this isn’t public information. Some members have been on the Committee for ages, which would only make sense if they were doing a good job. Perhaps if more people were rotated annually or every couple of years, the competition would benefit from new perspectives and ideas.

8) Looking just at the test at the school level of the competition in grade 8 in 2020, it is obvious that the person who made it did a poor job. The test-makers should be versed in test development, and more members of the Committee should be involved in providing feedback to the test-maker before the test is released. In fact, all the members of the Committee should be trained in assessment matters.

9) In the midst of the 2020 debacle, three exceptional and very qualified professionals (a top Croatian scholar and ELT methodology professor, a textbook author and pre-service mentor, and a curriculum developer, to name just a few roles) left the Committee because their expert opinion, which differed from that of the Committee President, was ignored and suppressed. A committee in which a person’s expert opinion isn’t acknowledged simply because it is different from the centrally enforced one is a committee that stifles critical thinking. We have already established that there is no external evaluation of the committee (see n°7), and it is clear that any attempt at change coming from within is quickly thwarted.

10) It would be easy to live with the fact we have a subpar competition because it takes place only once a year so you sort of get it over with and get over it, but the problem is that such a competition has a negative washback effect and thus could influence the way students are taught and assessed. Do we want students to think that knowing English is mostly about knowing how to transform sentences and words and being more informed about London than the Queen herself? Or do we want them to understand that English is about getting your message across to two billion people who speak it?

For all of the reasons above, I find the system of competition in English ill-conceived – it fails bright students and hard-working teachers. We have let it fester for too long.

This text was published in HUPEzine in May 2020.

Croatian ELTs’ preferred digital tools (April 2020)

With classes being online due to schools being closed down because of COVID-19, many English language teachers are using a variety of digital tools – apps and platforms – to deliver parts of their lessons remotely. Of course, these tools were used before to enrich the classes, but now they have an even greater role in English language teaching. These are Croatian ELTs’ preferred digital tools in April tools and apps for ELTs

How NOT to teach culture and test intercultural competence









The year is 2020, and in the picture above you see a task in the national competition in English, in Croatia. The competition is held annually at three stages – school, county, and national. Those who rank high at the first level go to the next level and if they score well there they get invited to the national level. The competition is held for students in grade 8 of elementary school (age 14) and grades 2 and 4 in high school (ages 16 and 18). Students who rank high at the national level for the elementary school competition get extra points for enrolling into high school and those in high school get points for enrolling into university. So, we could call it a high-stakes test.

The school-level test consists of the usual reading comprehension tasks and use of language tasks (of which the task above is considered a part). The county-level test has also a listening task, and the national-level test has a writing and a speaking task. 

The task above is from the elementary school test at the school level. What issues do I have with the task? (The whole test is a disaster, but I’ll just talk about this one task.)

1) After eight years of schooling, students’ intercultural competence is tested by a task that requires them to reproduce geographical and historical facts – and if that wasn’t bad enough, all six questions are about London. So, the message the student gets is – if you don’t know trivia about London, you’re not good at communicating in English. Not to mention that few actual residents of London would know the right answers to those questions.

2) English = United Kingdom. In Croatia, there are still teachers who will tell you that the ‘right’ version of English is British English and that it is this variety that our students should learn. Why? Because. This, of course, makes no sense if we look at the numbers. English is a first or an official language in a number of countries beyond the usual suspects (UK, US, Canada, and Australia), for example, the Philippines, Nigeria, Malta, India…, and there are three times more non-native than native speakers. So, no, teaching students about the cultures of the English-speaking world cannot come down to British culture alone, which is often the case in textbooks used in Croatia, where culture is understood as the sights of London, New York, and – if you’re lucky – a random Australian or Canadian location. And that’s what the textbooks covering a period of eight years of mandatory education revolve around. Culture coverage doesn’t get much better in high school.

3) Even if in some parallel universe you need to teach students only about British culture, intercultural competence is not about reproducing factual knowledge – it’s about using the language in a communicative act. Look at the task again. Where is communication in that? Or, if you don’t think this could be turned into a performance-based task, then let’s turn it into a critical thinking task and have students answer questions like ‘What did the lives of the natives look like after their countries were colonized by the British Empire?’, or an easier, factual one, ‘In which museum in London can you find the artifacts stolen from indigenous peoples during colonization?’

4) What is the washback effect of a task like this on the national competition? What will the teachers focus on in their classes to better prepare students for the next year’s competition? They will focus on memorizing trivia instead of developing (intercultural) communicative competence.

To sum up, having a task like this on a test in 2020 is unacceptable. We’ve been talking about communicative competence for forty years, English has grown immensely beyond its country of origin, in open society cultures intertwine and blend, and we have teachers testing students’ intercultural competence after eight years of schooling by asking them to reproduce facts about London. This is not what English language teaching is about.

Selected references:
Byram, M. (2008). From Foreign Language Education to Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Multilingual Matters.
Jandt, F. (2009). Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community. Sage Publications.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.
Kukljanov, I.E. (2005). Principles of Intercultural Communication. Allyn and Bacon.
Moran, P. (2001). Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Heinle & Heinle.