Monday, June 02, 2008

Language tests for immigrants & Honesty tests for newspapers

This morning, the Toronto Star's reports on the government's plan for the IELTS test to become the single and universal determinant of English language competency for people wanting to immigrate to Canada. According to the article, every applicant would take the test. [added June 5: the government has since backed off these plans].

I'll leave discussion about the inappropriateness of such policies for another time. For now, I'd like to look at how Taylor appears to mischaracterise IELTS.

The story begins like this:

"Think you speak English? Try this test.

Find the grammatical (or syntactic) error in this sentence: The standard of living has increased.

Stumped? Soon, that will count against you if you're hoping to immigrate to Canada. The rigorous language test that will be a requirement is vital to be fair to the influx of newcomers or vastly discriminatory and fatally flawed, depending on whom you talk to.

The correct answer is: The standard of living has risen.

The grammar questions are among the trickiest in the International English Language Testing System exam, broken into 30 minutes of listening, 15 of speaking and an hour each of reading and writing."

In all honesty, I'm less familiar with the test than I should be, but I spent some time looking at the descriptions of the various sections along with the sample questions on their website, and I couldn't see anything resembling the increase/raise distinction that Taylor claims. (By the way, the BYU Corpus of American English has raise occurring near standard of living about twice as often as increase, but both are well attested.)

Wanting to confirm my suspicions, I asked about this on the Ltest mailing list. Lynda Taylor of University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (not to be confused with

In response to your query, I think the Toronto Star article risks generating some confusion about the sorts of test questions and tasks that appear in the IELTS test papers for Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.

IELTS does not have (and has never had) a distinct section testing explicit grammatical knowledge, so no part of the test would feature a discrete grammar question such as the example given in the Toronto Star article. Grammatical control is of course considered to be an important part of a test-taker's overall language competence but this is assessed primarily in the performance-focused parts of IELTS, i.e. Writing and Speaking, where various aspects of grammar are included in the assessment criteria and scales.

The grammar question example given in the Toronto Star article does not come from an IELTS test paper nor does it come from the IELTS Official Practice Materials. Instead, it seems to have been taken from another source entirely - probably one of the many test preparation coursebooks produced by publishers around the world. This type of published course material is mainly intended for classroom or self-study and typically includes grammatical (as well as lexical, semantic, phonological and other) exercises to help language learners develop and consolidate their knowledge and skills in English as part of their preparation for taking the test. As you might imagine, the quality of such published course materials can vary considerably.

I am glad that the media is paying attention to the story. The plan to use a single test to assess every applicant for immigration is unsound and I'll be contacting my MP to voice my concerns. But arguing against a caricature of the test rather than the test itself can undermine efforts to address real problems.


goofy said...

Is this even a real disputed usage? MW Dictionary of English Usage has nothing about increase vs raise.

Anonymous said...

No one seems to have noticed that the "error" in question is not a grammar mistake. It's merely semantically awkward (at worst).

In addition to "The standard of living has risen" one could have said "The measure of the standard of living has increased". But the standard of living in this context is clearly a measured value anyway, so I wouldn't even consider this an error.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for following up on this. I too was troubled by the story, and especially by the "sample question".


Gheuf said...

The Toronto Star article does not contrast "increase" with "raise" as you describe. It contrasts "increase" with "rise". When you report that "standard of living" occurs more often with "raise" than with "increase", is that also true of "rise"?

Brett said...

Thanks Gheuf. Yes, I do seem to have done a mental shift from intransitive rise to transitive raise. Still, I think the same issue would apply to "raise/increase the standard of living."