March 17, 2023

Productive Skills: Helping Learners Generate Details

Most CELPIP Speaking and Writing tasks require a degree of role play. Some of it is straightforward: for example, most Speaking tasks prompt the test taker to speak directly to someone, such as a friend, coworker, or family member. If that person’s name is not provided in the question, test takers can use any name they wish—that of somebody they know, or an invented name. Typically, however, the test taker must come up with more than just a name in order to proceed with a question. Writing tasks, for example, are situated within a particular context, such as You are taking an evening course at the local college, or The mayor of your city is considering adding a bike lane to your street. While these will be common daily life situations, they likely won’t reflect the test taker’s real-life circumstances, which means they must assume a role from which to respond.

Many test takers worry about the role play element of productive skills questions. They are often under the impression that their responses need to be original and creative, and they feel that they don’t have a good enough imagination to come up with ideas. In fact, creativity is not a factor included in the Writing or Speaking performance standards. While test takers are welcome to be creative in their CELPIP responses (provided that they stay on topic and keep the tone appropriate), raters don’t assess entertainment value. What they do evaluate—in the Content/Coherence dimension—is the depth, clarity, and flow of the ideas. A strong response has a clear purpose and presents identifiable main ideas supported with meaningful, precise details. Brainstorming practice can help learners maximize their ability to produce such content—not through imagination or invention, but by accessing their knowledge and experience.

Untimed, collaborative brainstorming practice exposes test takers to a variety of approaches to each task and allows them to develop strategies that work for them. Providing a sample prompt and a variety of guiding questions is a minimal-prep way to facilitate this. For example, here is a sample Writing Task 2 prompt from one of the two free practice tests:

First, with learners working either in groups or as a full class, you can elicit details about the people, places, and things in the prompt, such as:

  • What are some examples of large offices in your city/around the world? Have you ever worked in one, or do you know anyone who has? How many employees were there?
  • What are some different job roles that exist in large offices?
  • What are some restaurants in your community? Which one is your favourite? What kind of food do they serve?
  • Did you have working parents growing up? Are you, or are any of your friends or family members, working parents?

It’s important to let learners know that the purpose of this exercise is to show them that there are many opportunities to add detail to the content of the prompt, not to suggest that it would be mandatory to incorporate all of those details into their response. Expanding on some of the general information in the prompt (e.g., popular restaurant, night class, your city) is always a useful strategy for adding precise details to a CELPIP response, but when and how to do it is up to each individual test taker. For example, when completing the task above, some would choose to mention the company name and others would not. Some would include extensive details about the nature and quality of the food at the restaurant, and others wouldn’t mention the food at all.

Brainstorming details about the question helps learners to realize they do understand the situation well enough to write or speak about it. Even if they haven’t experienced it as a whole, they will be familiar with all of its parts: in the case of the prompt above, offices, restaurants, parents, etc. This will be true for all Writing and Speaking questions that require role play. Note that test takers are welcome to invent names and come up with imaginary details about the people, places, and things included in their responses if they prefer, but these can also be real (e.g., Microsoft, McDonald’s) or fictional (e.g., Dunder Mifflin, Central Perk). Any approach is equally acceptable from a scoring standpoint, so test takers should do whatever they find most helpful for building responses. Additionally, learners should know that no response needs to include details about Canada; the company in the prompt above, for example, can be located anywhere in the world.

After discussing concrete details, it is useful to apply them to consideration of the broader concepts present in the situation, such as the circumstances and feelings of the people involved and the potential effects of a decision. For example, the following questions could be discussed:

  • What are the advantages to having a restaurant in a large office?
  • Who in a company would benefit most from the restaurant, and why? Who would not benefit from it?
  • Imagine that you eat lunch at the restaurant every day. How would you feel if the company removed it?
  • Roughly what percentage of the employees of a large company do you imagine would have young children?
  • What are some childcare challenges that working parents might experience?
  • How would working parents benefit from an on-site daycare?
  • Is it fair to replace something that everyone can use with something that only some people can use? Why or why not?

Considering the bigger picture of a question is an important strategy because it leads to responses that exhibit greater completeness and depth of meaning. It allows test takers to think past themselves and discuss the situations, needs, and opinions of others—an important part of responding to many CELPIP Speaking and Writing questions. Sharing answers to such questions in groups or as a class exposes them to a variety of possibilities and perspectives that they may not have come up with alone.

Once you have brainstormed about the concrete details and the bigger-picture ideas, the next step is to guide learners in developing the role they will assume for the response. Test takers are free to take on any characteristics that suit the question and help them to come up with relevant ideas and details. For the question above, you might have them consider questions like these:

  • Are you a parent?
  • What is your job at the company? Is it a demanding job? What is your work schedule?
  • Do you use the restaurant a lot? Why or why not?
  • Where is the office building located? Are there other restaurants nearby?

To ease in to the end result of test takers being comfortable developing their own roles, you can have them work in groups the first couple of times, and/or provide them with roles yourself: for example, You are a sales manager who works 10-hour days, you are single, and you eat at the restaurant about four times a week, or, You are the parent of two young children, and you rarely use the restaurant, but it is popular with your colleagues. Groups can then discuss the question in their assigned roles.

A variation on this approach would be to have learners create “characters” themselves: instruct everyone to write two or three relevant characteristics on a slip of paper, then collect and redistribute them, create groups of 2-4, and have learners take turns responding to the prompt in the role they have received, using the first person. Another variation is for you to write different elements of roles on slips of paper (age 26; 3 kids; not a fan of the restaurant’s food; etc.) and have everyone draw two or three. Working as a whole class or in groups, ask each learner to say, or write, a few things about how they would respond to the prompt. Encourage them to be as thorough as possible when explaining their reasons, and try eliciting additional information afterward (“How old are your kids?”, “What’s your favourite meal at the restaurant?”) to assess their ability to access details quickly.

By starting with concrete details, moving on to concepts and hypotheticals, and practicing responding to prompts from a variety of perspectives, learners will build their ability to access information they already have and incorporate it into their productive skills responses.

When I took CELPIP, I found it was like speaking English in real life. You speak every day with your boss and with your friends, and the CELPIP Test represents those every-day, real-life language situations.
- Rafaela B., CELPIP Test Taker
I had taken other English language proficiency before, and CELPIP was more relatable to me. All of the questions were situations I was familiar with from daily life, and were like conversations I had experienced personally.
- Chrisna D., CELPIP Test Taker