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Oral English Competition

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Oral English Competition


This week, Jiangsu Education Bureau, or some facet thereof, held its first oral English competition. Several weeks ago, my dean asked me to participate in this. My partner was Richard Seow, a Singaporean,  who is also an Amity teacher. 
    A few weeks ago, I had to record about 40 different paragraphs and dialogues that were to be used in the junior middle school portion of the competition. I enlisted a British guy who teaches nearby to help, as you always need two people, a male and a female.
    Last Sunday afternoon, Richard and I met with the woman in charge and the folks who were to be the judges. The judges were about seven different people from a variety of institutions, ranging from universities to the media.
    The program began on Monday, October 14, and finished Saturday, October 29. I left home at 7:30 each morning and got back home between 5:00 and 6:00. It was a long week.

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The format was thus: The contestants came from schools all over the province, but I don't know if this included small places or not. It seemed that the students were coming from the cities. I do know they had to be in a local competition before coming to Nanjing. Each school was represented by anywhere from one to six children.
    As you can see, they performed rather elaborate skits, some of which included songs and dances. The costumes and props were often quite elaborate, at each level. The first two days, Monday and Tuesday, were for primary school children. First, a school's pupils performed, then they had to answer some questions. First through fourth grade children had to answer questions about a cartoon-style picture. Fifth and sixth grade students had to watch a short educational TV segment, which had been made a few years ago by the Jiangsu Education Bureau, and then answer questions about that. No matter how many students were in a group, the computer chose only one of them to answer the questions, though the other children could make suggestions to the selected one. In many instances, particularly for the junior and senior groups, it seemed to Richard and me that the lot often fell on the student least able to do well. The younger the participants, the more likely they were to listen to their colleagues. Senior students seldom listened to anybody, much to the chagrin of some of their colleagues who felt that they knew better how to answer the questions.
    My job, along with Richard's, was to ask these questions. He and I alternated between groups; he did one, and I did the next one. The judges gave separate scores for performances, which counted 60 percent, and for the answers to the questions, which counted 40 percent. The results were posted on a screen after each group finished. There were approximately 36 performances for each of the three levels, primary school, junior middle school, and senior middle school. We took two days for each level. At the end of each level, there was an awards ceremony. In fact, every group received a prize. One child from each group, was selected to represent the group on stage in three groups, third level, second level, and first level.

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Two people served as announcers. They announced the upcoming school, the names of the performers, and the title of the performance. At the end, they announced the scores.
    You see in the second photo the leader of the whole show, the woman on the left at the tables, and to her left, the judges. The two photos on the right show me asking questions of a primary school group. If you can see the picture, it shows the kind of picture they answered questions about. Richard is shown with the whole stage in view, showing that the participants stood on one side of the stage and we stood behind the podium on the other side. It wasn't quite as far as it looks in the photo.
    The first two days were traumatic for me. The little children often could not understand the question. They can memorize anything, but in order to answer, you have to understand the question. That was a problem, particularly for the younger children. The idea was to ask four simple questions (what color is the lady's dress, how many people do you see, etc.) and then to ask some question that would elicit some sentences. It was a terrible feeling to stand there and see their little faces and know they did not know what you said. I tried every way I could to word something so that they could answer it. I will recommend that if they do this again, that little children not answer questions, or if they do, they should be asked in Chinese and answered in English. Of course, many could do it, but the ones I will always remember are the ones who couldn't.

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The junior middle school (sixth through ninth grades) students did much better. They did their performances, of course, and then listened to the recorded paragraphs or dialogues, which were read twice, very slowly, and then answered questions about the content. Again, the first four questions were to be fairly simple, with the fifth question to elicit a more extensive response, perhaps based on their own experiences as related to the concepts or experiences from the tapes. Most of them did fairly well, so those two days were less stressful. It was still necessary to speak a little slowly and to be selective in our vocabulary, but most of them could do it. The award ceremony you see there was the way they did it. Each school had one representative and all those at the third level came up and got a little clear plastic statuette, then the second level, and then the first level. They didn't name any single winner, so everyone got something and no one group was singled out, though the numbers were posted, so they did know who got the highest scores.

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The senior high students had to answer questions about line drawings, cartoon-style, with three or four panels, the content of which was rather abstract and often humorous. The point was to figure out what was happening and then to talk about it. They weren't necessarily easy to figure out. Some students did very well, others did less well, but all in all, they were pretty successful. The boy at the extreme right in the awards ceremony above, holding the statuette above his head, had gotten the highest score. He did a rap that was amazing. His was a solo performance. The seniors had more solo performances than the younger students did, though several performed in groups.
    The choice of topics was interesting. We had multiple performances, at various levels, of skits such as: Snow White, The Little Match Girl, The Necklace (the borrowed necklace which had been lost at a ball and the borrower replaced it with borrowed money and worked ten years to pay off the loan, only to discover that the necklace had been glass), The Merchant of Venice, and others. The skits were abbreviated versions of such works at The Merchant of Venice, or even of Snow White. There were original works, written by the student performing it, and there were many other topics that were only presented once.

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The scores were presented on the screen, projected from the computer. The groups received one round of scores for their performances and another for answering the questions. There were about seven judges and their scores were displayed as you can see on the screen here. The lowest and highest scores were thrown out and the remaining five averaged. The basis was 50, and most of the scores ranged from 48.50 to 49.75.
    Being the only obvious foreigner, made me stand out. Students wanted to have their pictures made with me, and wanted to talk to me. Richard and I were busy during breaks and in the first ten or fifteen minutes after the end of the morning and afternoon sessions. The primary school days were the most demanding. Stage mothers and teachers pushed the children to "speak to the foreigner," and to take pictures with me. Junior and senior middle school students also wanted pictures made but were less pushy and were more self-motivated than the primary school children.