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УДК 811.111-26.

THE ROLE OF GRAMMAR AND VOCABULARY


IN ASSESSING COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE IN PROFICIENCY TESTS

M.R. Karapetyan, G.V. Hovhannisyan

Роль грамматических и лексических ресурсов в оценке коммуникативной компетенции в


тестах на владение иностранным языком. – Современные интерактивные методы
обучения иностранных языков, а также языковое тестирование и оценка, в основном
фокусируются на коммуникативной компетенции обучаемых. Это ведет к ошибочному
мнению среди многих обучаемых и тестируемых о том, что их языковые навыки, в
частности в плане устной и письменной речи, могут ограничиваться лишь способностью
передавать информацию независимо от многочисленных ошибок. Они не осознают
значимости грамматических и лексических средств как неотъемлемых компонентов
коммуникативной языковой компетенции. В данной статье рассматриваются функции
грамматических и лексических средств в продуктивных видах речевой деятельности, а
также их влияние на оценку в тестах на владение английским языком, таких как TOEFL IBT
и IELTS.

Ключевые слова: коммуникативная компетенция, тестирование, оценка, говорение, письмо,


грамматика, лексика

Today, interactive methods of teaching foreign languages, as well as language testing and
assessment, mostly focus on learners‟ communicative competence. This leads to a false belief in
many learners and test-takers that their language proficiency, especially in speaking and writing,
can be limited to the ability to make themselves understood despite making plenty of errors. They
fail to acknowledge the significance of grammatical and lexical means as inseparable components
of communicative language competence.
What is communicative language competence? According to the Common European
Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) model of language use [3. p.11], it is a complex of
other competences, including linguistic, sociolinguistic and pragmatic ones. However, while
interactive activities and immersion in the target language environment help the user build the feel
of socio-cultural nuances and awareness of social and pragmatic conventions, the linguistic
competences often remain neglected, with grammar and vocabulary being the most disregarded
aspects. In the past, the ability to speak was the most challenging for foreign language learners. For
fear of making mistakes they did not tend to produce an independent speech at the initial stages of
learning, so independent talk developed as learners increased their baggage of grammatical
knowledge and extended their vocabulary resource. Today, language instructors encourage using
language from the very early stages without focusing on errors. As a result, the ability to convey
one‟s ideas is formed relatively easily. But is this ability sufficient for an effective communication
to take place? And how will it affect the scoring process in proficiency tests? This paper considers
such a crucial function of grammar and vocabulary in productive language skills as their
interference with meaning, as well as their impact on the scores in proficiency tests, such as the
TOEFL IBT and IELTS.
Undoubtedly, the choice of teaching/learning methods depends on the learner‟s objectives.
People who do not have to be tested for their knowledge of a foreign language can do quite
successfully with scarce language resources. Individuals travel around the world having just the
basic knowledge of a foreign language. In many spheres of work, professionals conduct
negotiations with foreign partners, participate and make presentations in international conferences,
read professional literature in the original, and do many other activities without too much effort, as
they master certain clichés enhanced by the knowledge of professional terminology. However, this
is not the case with individuals seeking employment or immigration status, or ones applying to
higher educational institutions, where the level of language mastery is measured through
standardized tests.
The current versions of the TOEFL IBT and IELTS tests do not have any individual tasks to
examine grammar and vocabulary. This knowledge is assessed through all other skills. Without
knowledge of advanced grammar and vocabulary it will be rather difficult, if not impossible, to
understand the reading and listening passages. Moreover, this knowledge should be demonstrated
when speaking and writing. Analyzing the speaking and writing rubrics for the above-mentioned
tests, we can make conclusions not only about what aspects of grammar and vocabulary are tested,
but also how much importance is attached to these skills. To start with, on the IELTS test, grammar
is assessed according to three criteria: range, accuracy and coherence. Thus, a proficient (band
score 9) speaker is expected to employ a variety of grammatical structures with high precision and
produce a coherent speech with proper cohesive features. In turn, lexical resource is assessed
according to four criteria: range, accuracy, coherence and pronunciation. The speaker should
skillfully manipulate his/her vocabulary enhancing it with idiomatic expressions and pronouncing
words correctly [2. pp. 20-21]. The written discourse should also be naturally cohesive, diverse in
syntactic structures and highly accurate in terms of both grammar and vocabulary usage [2. pp. 22-
23]. Similarly, the TOEFL gives preference to those samples of spoken and written language that
display unity, progression and coherence, grammatical variety, relevant word-choice and use of
idiomatic expressions [1. p. 83].At the same time, experience shows that test-takers who tend to
take risks with the language have higher chances of success than those who play it safe holding to
familiar and unvaried grammar and vocabulary. Then how can learners balance their skills in order
to speak both diversely and accurately? The only way to ensure such an outcome is to build strong
and solid grammatical background and constantly replenish the lexical resource by extensively
reading authentic sources and listening to the native speech, as well as practising speaking and
writing.
Nevertheless, the above-mentioned criteria do not at all mean that the test-takers‟ knowledge
and skills should be absolutely flawless. Both tests allow scope for minor slips and lapses in
language use. We all make mistakes. But which mistakes can be referred to as “minor”? Which are
“risky”?
The term “minor mistakes” is controversial. If we take a closer look at speaking and writing
samples in the TOEFL and IELTS preparation course-books and CD-ROMs, we shall notice that
the mistakes identified as “minor” are diverse. They are not a specific type of mistakes. What they
have in common is their “safety,” i.e., they do not pose too much difficulty for the listener/reader to
perceive the message. Nonetheless, a sheer abundance of such “minor” mistakes can be very
annoying indeed. A piece of spoken or written discourse can become incomprehensible, if the
receiver‟s train of thought is constantly interrupted. Besides, among these “minor” mistakes we
even encounter such serious violations as misuse of verb tenses. At times they do not change or
distort the meaning, at other times they make it ambiguous. The ambiguity can be clarified thanks to
the contextual clues, but does it make these mistakes “minor”?
The purpose of both verbal and written communication is to get the point across. It is no secret
that in the hurry of speaking and writing within time limits errors may creep in. If a speech or a
piece of writing is full of errors and lapses, the message, at best, will be somewhat difficult to
apprehend, but with some effort the listener/reader, although annoyed, will still be able to grasp it.
However, in other cases mistakes may lead to ambiguity or complete incomprehensibility of the
message. Therefore, language users and test-takers should especially avoid errors that potentially
distort meaning. At first sight, of the three writing and four speaking assessment criteria mentioned
above, only range seems not to affect the receiver‟s understanding, resulting in a lower score
anyway. In our view, though, all the criteria are closely intertwined, and the restricted range of
lexical resource, for example, can destroy coherence and sentence cohesion, in this way interfering
with the logic of the message. The lack of lexical and grammatical variety and correctness, too, can
prevent conveying an accurate meaning.
Further, we shall analyze Armenian students‟ writing and speaking samples in terms of range,
accuracy and coherence and their effect on the gist and logic of the message. In this paper we shall
skip pronunciation errors since any gross mispronunciation will result either in missing the idea or
distortion of meaning.
We have outlined the following main types of errors:
1. tense inconsistency;
2. wrong word order;
3. unskillful usage of complex grammatical structures;
4. absence of grammatical parallelism;
5. misuse of pronouns;
6. lack of lexical variety;
7. misuse of synonyms;
8. absence, misuse or overuse of transition expressions.

Tense inconsistency
One of the major grammatical errors is the inconsistent use of tenses and verb forms. Let us
consider the two passages below, where the writers jump between various (and sometimes
incorrectly formed) tenses thus destroying logical cohesion between sentences.
To start with, smoking ruined health. It is harmful not only for smokers but also
for non-smokers, who are breathing in that smoke. Both active and passive smoking
affect such organs as lungs and heart which pose threat to life.

Globalization is damage the surrounding world. The world becoming more and
more polluted because of exhaust gases and smoke from cars and factories, or
increased air travel which lead to the increase in the number of tourists who polluted
our city.

At the same time, it is worth mentioning the other baffling mistakes in the above passages. In
passage 1, it is the demonstrative determiner “that” used before “smoke” with no antecedent, and
the relative pronoun “which,” followed by the plural verb form “pose,” thus misleading the reader
that it is lungs and heart that pose threat to life, rather than the fact that smoking affects these
organs. It must be noted that the missing comma also plays a decisive role here. Passage 2 contains
a similar mistake in “air travel which lead… .”
Getting back to misuse of tenses, we maintain that it threatens to break logical coherence, thus
obscuring the meaning and resulting in a deducted score.
Wrong word order
In many cases, wrong word order can be traced to the native language-based thinking. This
error is probably the most widespread, but it occurs particularly often in embedded questions. Here
are a few examples:
 Smokers will never understand how unpleasant should it be to breathe in someone else’s
smoke.
 I am going to introduce what are the two sources of conflict.
 In Greece, as a result of ineffective governance took place public clashes.
 In the world must be kept balance of forces.
 He has all features which must have each true leader.
 The university gives the students money who do not like sports.
 The lecturer outlines the artist’s strengths who has painted the landscape.

As can be seen, some errors with word order are quite safe, while others may result in change
of meaning. At best, such sentences do not read smoothly. For instance, the last three sentences do
not give us a clear idea about who does what, although a trained reader will easily identify the
problem and deduce the writer‟s or speaker‟s meaning.
Nevertheless, word order is an essential aspect of effective writing and speaking, and it
deserves due attention.

Unskillful usage of complex grammatical structures


To get a high score in the speaking section of proficiency tests, one does not have to use such
advanced grammar as, for instance, the passive voice, inversion, that-clauses with the infinitive,
complex tense forms, and others. Oral speech is quite casual and less rule-bound than written
speech, and some grammatical structures will just not fit into an informal talk about familiar topics.
However, advanced knowledge of grammar is crucial for effective writing. We recommend that an
essay writer make a mental checklist of important syntactic structures to assist him/her in producing
more diverse sentences.
Regrettably, using structures beyond basic grammar entails numerous errors that often leave
the reader confused. Below is the list of the most common ones.
Misuse of the Passive Voice:
 If the world had a common president, this balance would violate.
 In the past, pilots needed continuous training to give the permission to fly.
 Each department is moved by the rules of its own leader. (Meaning: Each department
works based on the rules of its own leader).
The mistake in the last example is conditioned by Armenian-based thinking – the Armenian
word for “move” (շարժվել) has letter վ, characteristic of the Armenian Passives but also used in
some Active verbs.
Participial vs subordinate clauses:
 Thus, a person read so many books will undoubtedly be an erudite. (Meaning: A person
who has read so many books will be an erudite).
 One example is the recently happened terrorist act in Paris. (Meaning: One example is the
terrorist act that happened in Paris recently).
Errors with Inversion:
 Not until do I understand the issue completely, I will dare to teach someone.
Errors with Noun Clauses and a Double Subject:
 Need the world a global leader or not it is difficult to decide.

The above-mentioned and similar mistakes occur as a result of the attempts to use advanced
grammar without mastering it properly. They create ambiguity and unclear expression of concepts.
At the same time, this risk is justified since the test-taker demonstrates a tendency to use complex
grammatical structures.

Absence of grammatical parallelism

Surprising as it can be, ambiguity may arise from the absence of parallel structures among a
series of words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs. Words in a series should follow the same
grammatical pattern; they can be all nouns, all adjectives, all verbs in the same form, tense and
mood, etc. Here is an example of a sentence parallelism: “It is from books that we gain essential
knowledge. It is books that we often turn to for answers. It is through reading that our lives get
more versatile” (from a student‟s essay). All the sentences in the given series are cleft sentences,
and this sameness makes the message easy to follow.
The primary objective of parallelism is to make the message coherent by giving it a rhythm.
Therefore, to some test-takers the absence of such balance may seem only a minor point not
interfering with meaning, like in “We want to go to the cinema with friends or watching a movie
together at home.” But, looking more closely, we will be confronted with some grave breaches of
sentence cohesion and the ensuing ambiguity or change of meaning. The following sentences serve
to illustrate the point:
 Self-study is more time-consuming because you have to choose the right material to learn
and where it is preferable to study.
 It is better to learn with a teacher. A teacher knows a lot and how to guide and encourage
a student.
 The alphabet also contributed to the development of philosophy, mathematics, law and
how to cure people.
 I would like to work with people who are not only friendly but communicatively.

Indeed, the absence of parallelism can undermine both sentence and paragraph cohesion by
cutting off the flow of ideas and thus posing difficulty for understanding.

Misuse of pronouns and determiners


Another common error is the misuse of pronouns and determiners. By referring to previously
(and sometimes subsequently) mentioned objects, ideas or phenomena explicitly, these words not
only prevent frequent repetition of words, but also effectively connect ideas within and between
sentences. Below is a student‟s paragraph which consistently employs the inclusive quantifier
“both” and the indefinite quantifier “either” to substitute for the two earlier mentioned ideas –
learning from personal experience and from others‟ advice:
Whether a physician, a gardener or a civil servant, all professionals combine
personal experience with the advice of other people. Both ways of learning about life
go hand in hand and no one should underestimate the importance of either.

Regrettably, this simple technique often presents a challenge to Armenian test-takers, many of
whom seem to “forget” to substitute repeatedly used words for pronouns and determiners, while
many others fail to make a pronoun and its antecedent agree in person, gender and number. This
error results in grammatical inconsistency of a message, but does not obstruct understanding; hence,
such a lapse can be considered as “minor”, like in “that technologies” and “the technological
progress and his consequences”. In contrast, errors like incorrect pronoun reference with missing
or ambiguous antecedents can seriously obscure the meaning. The example below conveys an
ambiguous message as to where people avoid buying goods from and who beware of fraudsters.
Even contextual clues are not helpful in clarifying the point.
Though supermarkets get in the way of small retailers, many people avoid
buying goods from them, as they beware of many fraudsters.

Here is another example by a student supporting the idea of “experience over education”:
Certainly, an educated person can explain to others how to do a job, but he
will never be able to teach it the way an experienced person would, because what he
knows has been learnt from a textbook, and he has never participated in real
activities.

In fact, the pronoun “he” can refer back to either of the persons in question. Only owing to the
context (what he knows has been learnt from a textbook) can we understand to whom the writer
refers. In the meantime, the sentence would be safer and more coherent if it were remedied:
Certainly, an educated person can explain to others how to do a job, but he
will never be able to teach it the way an experienced person would, because what the
former knows has been learnt from a textbook, while the latter has participated in
real activities.

The following passage presents an example of a missing antecedent: “The main cause of the
problem is a generalized approach to all the learners in the class. They strive to teach the group,
rather than individuals. They target the class’s achievements.” The student probably had “teachers”
in mind, but the fact that she used the word “teacher” or “teachers” much earlier in her essay does
not state the antecedent, not to mention that, but for the aiding context, “they” could also refer to
“all the learners in the class.”
Errors with pronouns are among the most frequent. In some contexts they can be viewed as
minor lapses, while in others they do affect the content significantly. In any case, although errors of
this kind are mostly careless, they can be rather embarrassing.

Lack of lexical variety and misuse of synonyms


A speech or an essay lacking lexical variety can also result in broken sentence cohesion and
ineffective communication. Lexical variety implies using alternative vocabulary to express key
words and ideas. Sticking to familiar words for safety, as recommended in many TOEFL and
IELTS unofficial teaching sources, is a good technique if the student has not put sufficient time and
effort into his test preparation and only anticipates a passing score. The following sentence is
perfectly comprehensible, but it falls short of lexical variety; it also needs to be improved in terms
of word-choice. All nations would obey that president, and the world president would do what he
wants. → All nations would obey that president, and the latter would do as he disposed/ would do
everything at his own discretion.
Limited word-stock also creates redundancy. Look at how little is communicated by the
student-written paragraph below, which is cluttered with the words „overcome‟ and „stress‟:
All these methods can be effective in overcoming stress. I always try to foresee
what may happen in order to be prepared and not to get stressed. Besides, every time
I overcome stressful situations I become more resistant to stress. However, it is
easier to try not to be under stress than overcome it.

The best method to avoid monotonous repetition is through synonyms. Expressing frequently
repeated words and ideas in different ways not only provides a piece of oral or written production
with lexical variety, but also prevents word clutters. This technique, however, also poses a
challenge to many learners. The paragraph below presents the abovementioned student‟s attempt to
reduce the clutters. What we see here is the most careless mistake students make when paraphrasing
– a “blind” replacement of words with their synonyms without considering their connotations.
Students fail to recognize that synonyms are only similar, but not always identical, in their
meanings.
All these methods can be effective in overcoming stress. I always try to foresee
what may happen in order to be prepared and not to get sad. Besides, every time I
conquer severe situations I become more resistant to anxieties. However, it is easier
to try not to be under tension than get free from it.

The second attempt seems more successful:


All these methods can be effective in overcoming stress. I always try to foresee
what may happen in order to be prepared and not to get strained. Besides, every time
I handle hectic situations I become more resistant to challenges. However, it is
easier to try not to put myself under pressure than cope with it.

In fact, the most important cause of the wrong word choice and the ensuing lexical ambiguity
is the native language-based mentality.
 When people watch famous TV shows, they get entertained and informed at the same time.
→ popular
 The region’s linguistic, cultural and religious identity is quite various from that of the rest
of the country. → different / distinct
 For example, at our chemistry lesson we do laboratory experiences. → experiments
 Leadership skills must come from a leader’s spirit and characteristics. → One must be
born a leader; leadership qualities cannot be acquired.
 Through his charisma he is able to take large groups of people behind him. → He is able
to lead /guide large groups of people./ … make large groups of people follow him.
On the other hand, learning a pile of new words from vocabulary-builders without studying
these words in use often entails misusing them, as can be seen in the following sentences:
 It also improves human eyesight and regulates stomach action. → activity
 At that time clothes of the apricot color were considered a sign of royal heritage. → origin
 Diplomats have certain privileges; for example, they are exempt from prosecution. →
immune
 In our culture it is common to encompass people who we consider friends.→ embrace

To sum up this point, it is vital to provide lexical variation in order to avoid monotony and
repetitiveness, which disrupt the flow of ideas. However, students must beware of wrong word-
choice, which is a threat to comprehensibility of the message.

Absence, misuse or overuse of transition expressions


Still another common problem in students‟ works is the misconception of the function of
transition words and expressions – conjunctions and signposts. More specifically, test-takers make
these three errors: omitting, misusing and overusing transitions. The absence of transitions makes a
speech or a written text abrupt. The improper usage of transitions can hinder understanding by
challenging the logic of the message. The overuse of transitions (usually in writing) makes an essay
look mechanical and artificial.
The example below demonstrates a misuse of transitions resulting in the message being
illogical:
Diligence is important for success. The famous American scientist Thomas
Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, worked for 20 hours a day. Besides, he was one
of the world’s greatest inventors. Probably we would still illuminate rooms and
streets with candles without his achievement. On the other hand, according to
statistics, hard-working people get better jobs and earn more money than smart ones
or those who rely on luck.

It is evident that „besides, he was…‟, indicating addition, should be replaced with „as a result,
he became…‟, showing effect; alternatively, „on the other hand‟, indicating contrast, should be
replaced with „in fact‟ or „it is interesting to note‟, showing focus or „not surprisingly‟, summing up
the paragraph‟s ideas.
At the same time, skilled writers are able to communicate the logical meaning using only as
many transitions as necessary. This is especially true of signaling examples and endings. If these
functions are clear from the context, transitions can be dispensed with.
Indeed, clothes we are wearing in different places for different purposes can
change our behavior. Sometimes they have the power to raise our self-esteem or make
us belittle ourselves. For instance, proud of the luxurious fur coat she is wearing, a
successful businesswoman may look down on others at a business meeting. In
contrast, one can feel uncomfortable and even inferior because of the manner he or
she is dressed. For example, at a party where all guests are dressed in classic style,
someone dressed casually may experience embarrassment, eventually causing him to
leave.

The above paragraph would read much more smoothly if it were not so plentiful in transitions.
Both of the connectors signaling examples (“for instance” and “for example”) could be safely
omitted, as could the connector “indeed”, which shows emphasis.
As a final point, it is not always true that one can communicate ideas by delivering a speech or
producing a piece of writing full of mistakes. Minor or not, a mistake is a mistake. Too many and
systematic errors not only create misunderstanding which can be fatal for someone‟s business,
career or another important aspect of life, but also lower the TOEFL and IELTS score. Therefore,
speakers and writers of English should assume responsibility for the content of the message by
improving the grammatical and lexical accuracy of their language production in order to express
their thoughts fluently and confidently and assure perfect comprehensibility.

Bibliography

1. ETS TOEFL Test Prep Planner. In Official TOEFL iBT Tests. Volume 1. / Educational
Testing Service. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2013. – P. 79-83.
2. IELTS. Guide for Teachers. / British Council, IDP IELTS Australia, Cambridge English
Language Assessment, June 2013. – P. 18-23.
3. Manual for Language Test Development and Examining. For use with the CEFR. / Produced
by ALTE on behalf of the Language Policy Division, Council of Europe (Strasbourg), April
2011.- P. 10-11.