At the vanguard in teaching Sri Lankans English | Daily News

Cambridge Assessment English

At the vanguard in teaching Sri Lankans English

Cambridge English's Head of Business Development for South Asia, Manish Puri conducts a session for local language educators
Cambridge English's Head of Business Development for South Asia, Manish Puri conducts a session for local language educators

In Sri Lanka, English is spoken by approximately 10 percent of the population. Across the island, however, there are language learning centres seeking to change this, offering English classes for an array of reasons a person might need language fluency: education, employment, immigration, and more. The gist is that these centres teach students in English courses, and after the course is completed, they administer a certification exam that proves a person’s proficiency.

Cambridge English's Customer Services Director Andy Page speaks at the organization's recent event in Colombo

One such exam organization popular in Sri Lanka is Cambridge Assessment English, a language qualification programme connected to the University of Cambridge. Each year, over five million Cambridge English exams are taken in over 130 countries, and in Sri Lanka, the exams are administered in over 260 partner institutions.

This week, the Daily News had the opportunity to sit down with three representatives from Cambridge Assessment English - Global Services Deputy Director Liam Vint; Customer Services Director Andy Page; and Head of Business Development in South Asia, Manish Puri — who were visiting the country as a stop on a tour of South Asia to expand the scope of their programme’s reach in the region. In an interview, they expressed optimism in the future of English speaking in Sri Lanka, noting that there has been a trend in the island towards their Young Learners Examinations. Still, they acknowledged that their programme, and English language learning more generally, has yet to penetrate more rural areas in the island.

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Why are you here today, and why are you eager to expand your programmes in Sri Lanka?

A: Cambridge Assessment operates in over 170 countries. To say why we’re here today, it’s partly to do with our global scope, but also our interest in Sri Lanka in particular, as an area where there is lots of excitement about learning English - not just learning by rote, but really learning a communicative approach.

Traditionally, in countries like Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal, a lot of candidates take our IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examination, which is more popular. But the awareness in terms of what other qualifications Cambridge Assessment English has is a little low. So we would want to work with our existing partners here, including the British Council and others, to ensure that schools, colleges, and private language schools are aware.

Q: What is your relationship to the British Council and other regional partners?

A: The British Council is one of our partners globally. We work with the British Council in many countries. In many places, the British Council may be one of the places that acts as a centre to deliver our exams. But we work with many other partners as well.

In terms of the British Council working with us, there are two areas. One is as a partner in a test we have called IELTS, which is geared towards people studying abroad or even for immigration purposes. In Cambridge English qualifications, we work with the British Council normally as one of our centres. Here in Sri Lanka for example, the British Council is one of the organizations that helps deliver our exams. For us, it’s very important to have partners on the ground - very often language teaching centres or university schools - who act as a kind of administrative centre in delivering the exams. The other thing we need on the ground is speaking examiners; so throughout the whole process, we need to ensure that our exams are administered the same way all around the world, whether it’s in Argentina, China, or Sri Lanka.

Q: What is your most popular English language examination in Sri Lanka?

Cambridge English's Global Services Deputy Director Liam Vint presents a teaching award to a stand-out Sri Lankan language educator

A: The most popular English language examination here is the Young Learners English. it’s basically the primary school students who take these qualifications.

Almost 52 percent of the examinations we do here are the Young Learners Examinations. In the Sri Lankan market, we see lots of parents who are eager to introduce English language as early as possible to their children.

Q: How do your examinations for younger learners differ from the IELTS examination?

A: The way we construct the examinations, from the Young Learner tests through different levels of school, is that the examinations are targeted to different school levels with concepts that students at any time should be familiar with. At a young learner stage, that could be heavily about recognition, so not requiring so much in terms of production. But as young learners work through the levels, particularly, it’s important to use all four skills - speaking, reading, listening, and writing (or production).

So in that sense, in terms of preparing, the idea is to expose students to and have students use a very communicative form of the English language. And then in the exam context, they are prepared and they have the opportunity to show what they can do with the language. And I think if the students engage in Sri Lanka, they perform very well.

Q: What is a recent development in language learning that you’ve observed?

A: Cambridge Assessment has been offering English as a foreign language assessment since 1913. What’s probably different over the last 10-15 years is that previously we were more involved in the later levels of high school, with students who intended to go to university overseas. Now, we’re much more involved, engaged in full-time education, working with schools - state schools, religious schools, government schools, private schools - and we are seeing an ongoing progressive assessment as part of a language learning process. What we’re now saying is that we try and follow through with students every step of the way, and what we’re trying to do is stress that this is to help you learn and it’s not just about having proof of that language qualification.

Q: Are you involved in teaching English as well, rather than just testing people to qualify with it?

A: Yes. We have teacher training as well. We teach and qualify teachers to then lead courses that would then teach and qualify students in Cambridge English. One of the biggest things we’ve noticed when expanding our programmes in new regions or working in countries for the first time is that governments are very keen to work first on teacher trainings for English and get them familiar with our approach, not just with the exam but with English, and only then work with those same teachers as they engage with students in schools.

Ours is a capacity-building model. We work with the teachers to improve their professional development. Apart from language qualifications, there are qualifications we have in the form of teaching awards. So we see a lot of traction with the teachers in international schools, here and elsewhere, who are ensuring they have a professional certificate, which certifies which level they’re at, not just in terms of language, but also methodology of teaching.

Q: What sets Cambridge English Assessment apart from other English language certifications?

Educators take notes at Cambridge English's event in Colombo

A: Recognition is really key. Over 24,000 organizations and institutions worldwide recognize our qualifications. These are not only higher education institutions, but also major businesses, and even governments. So this is an incentive if you want to study in one of these educational institutions or get a visa or enable access to the first level of selection for job at a multinational corporation.

It’s also the support that Cambridge offers that’s unique to us. We provide resources to teachers, to students, to parents, from hard-copy to face-to-face to digital resources, movies and even webinars. And the certification comes from one of the world’s oldest universities; so students are assured of the quality and the standards of the exam. And we maintain these standards because everything comes from Cambridge, and everything goes back to Cambridge for marking.

Q: Have you made an effort for outreach with more rural schools, where levels of English-learning are lower?

A: We depend more on the regional partners for that. We don’t commonly go out to rural schools or districts, not just here, but in India also, for example. That’s how and why we work with our regional partners. We have partners not just in Colombo, but also in Negombo and in Kandy, and we depend on them to reach out. Our role is more about giving support to these centres, with our trainer trainings. But we’d be quite keen to have more partners in Sri Lanka who can reach out.

We are trying to increase our government projects globally, which is another way to connect with more rural partners.

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