Students of English and their parents often put a great deal of emphasis on tests and exam results. This is true all around the world. In Vietnam specifically, the Cambridge Tests are extremely popular, and it is understandable that parents want their children to pass the tests and receive an internationally-recognised certificate. This gives a sense of accomplishment to the child and also can help them gain entry to higher-level classes at school. However, this focus on teaching for the test – treating passing the test as the goal of learning – is in fact counter-productive, and damages linguistic development in the long term.
We are all born predisposed to learning, especially to the acquisition of languages. Children are inherently curious and inquisitive, so the first few years of school are usually extremely enjoyable for children. However, many students stop enjoying school after a few years, and are no longer excited to learn. A primary reason for this is the continued focus on tests makes learning dull and repetitive. Tests can be very stressful, and many students are afraid of failure. Subsequently, many students no longer enjoy the learning process. This damages their ability to develop. Furthermore, taking important tests can be extremely exhausting, and this can damage the long term progress of the child. Even if the child does well, after passing the exam, it is natural for him or her to want to relax, and the effort put into learning after the exam may be reduced drastically.
Another problem with teaching to the test is that students learn intensively, ‘cramming’ as much knowledge as they can in a short space of time, so that they can regurgitate it during the test. Unfortunately, though, that knowledge is quickly forgotten after the test, unless is it is reinforced through regular use and practice. This method demonstrates a common misunderstanding of how we learn languages. It is not only about acquiring knowledge; it is about developing a skill. The only way to develop that skill is to continually practice until it becomes second nature. Focusing too much on the test means that students (and parents) will concentrate on the ‘learning’ part of language acquisition, and not spend enough time ‘using’ the language, the most important stage in making language instantly accessible.
Tests and exams are extremely useful and vital tool in assessing students’ progress. However, focusing on passing an exam as a goal does not stimulate linguistic development, and damages development in the long term. The best way to ensure long-term success is to foster lifelong enjoyment of learning in a low pressure, fun, English immersion environment. Children are naturally able to learn a language in this kind of environment with no need for stressful exams. For young learners, patience and enjoyment will produce the best results.
It is vital to remember that tests only exist to measure a student’s ability. For young learners, we should ensure learning is stress free and enjoyable, and tests should be kept to a minimum. At an older age, exams will act as milestones along the road to success, but we must remember that they are just markers along the way, and should never be seen as a destination.