IELTS Preparation in New Zealand: an Investigation into the Nature of the Courses and Evidence of Washback
In recent years, the impact of major tests and examinations on language teaching and learning has become an area of significant interest for testers and teachers alike. One aspect of test impact is washback, which is traditionally described as the negative effects that result from a test. It is said to create a narrowing of the curriculum in the classroom so that teachers and learners focus solely on the areas to be tested. On the other hand, there have been attempts to generate positive washback by means of examination reform to encourage teachers and learners to adopt more modern communicative approaches to language learning. The test that is the subject of the present study is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which has become the preferred method of assessing the English language proficiency of international students seeking admission into tertiary institutions in many countries. Since its introduction into New Zealand in 1991, courses which claim to prepare students for the test have become an increasingly common feature of the programmes offered by both private and public sector language schools. This study investigated the washback effect of the test by studying three IELTS preparation courses offered by language schools at public tertiary institutions in Auckland. The aim was to identify the significant activities in an IELTS preparation class in New Zealand and establish whether there was evidence of washback in the way classes were designed and delivered. Various forms of data-gathering were utilised, including two structured observation instruments, questionnaires and interviews for the teachers, two questionnaires for the students, and pre- and post-testing of the students. In addition, an analysis was made of IELTS preparation textbooks, with particular reference to those which were sources of materials for the three courses. Thus, the study provided a detailed account of the range and duration of activities occurring in IELTS preparation courses as well as insight into the teachers' approach to selecting appropriate lesson content and teaching methods. The findings showed markedly different approaches between the courses, with two focusing almost exclusively on familiarising students with the test and providing them with practice on test tasks. On the other hand, the third course, while including some test practice, took a topic-based approach and differed from the others in the amount of time spent on the types of activities one might expect to find in a communicative classroom. Pre- and post-testing revealed no significant gain in overall IELTS scores during the courses. The study concludes that teachers who design and deliver IELTS preparation courses are constrained by a combination of factors of which IEITS itself is but one. It highlights the need for further research into appropriate methodologies for washback research, including the refinement and validation of observation instruments, and provides more evidence of the complex impact of tests on both classroom teaching and learning.