Functional English is the ability to communicate in English through listening, speaking, writing, and reading in real-life contexts, with grammar usage focused more on an ‘effectivity’ perspective than a ‘correctness’ perspective (Halliday, 1994). With the increasing globalisation of trades and services and an increased presence of technology across the globe, English has gained the status of a language that is used as a tool for global integration and economic advancement. There are growing demands from both individuals and policymakers to use the English language as a common means of communication. As a result, many low and middle-income countries have been investing a considerable amount of money and effort in building their population’s capacity in the language. This trend has also affected the schooling system where many parents are opting for schools with English as a medium of instruction.

In the year 2016–17, Educational Initiatives and Young Lives Foundation, Oxford University conducted a study to understand the cross-country school effectiveness in Ethiopia, India and Vietnam. As part of this study, one of the research questions designed was to explore the role of English, especially Functional English, in these three countries as a ‘transferable skill’ for adolescents, with the potential relevance for continuing education, labour market opportunities and social mobility. The data collected of 14–15-years-old adolescents also contributed towards the Young Lives longitudinal study of childhood poverty which began in 2002 in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.

Table:1: Exposure to different types of potential learning situations in each country (Source: Azubuike & Vaidya, 2018)

Based on the data shown in table1, there was a need to create an assessment that would be relevant to children from diverse backgrounds (students from the countries chosen for the study and students within these countries).

The Functional English test created for Young Lives longitudinal study was loosely aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) developed by the Council of Europe (2001). This framework defines six levels of language proficiency (known as the Common Reference Levels,) based on the ability of the learners, ranging from A1 (most basic) to C2 (most advanced). In consultation with the British Council & Young Lives, these levels were converted into three more prominent levels: Basic, Competent and Proficient.

The Functional English assessment tested four different English skills focusing on the ‘functionality’ of English and was not necessarily mapped to any specific grade. There were 60-70% common items between the tests for each country. The questions were framed in a way that divided the test-takers into the proficiency levels designed. The table below explains these proficiency levels:

Figure: 1 : Snippet of the Proficiency levels designed mapped to CEFR levels with adaptations

The tests were pre-piloted, piloted and then finalised to suit the requirement of the project. The test items were adapted to country-specific conventions like names of people, place names etc.

 Figure 2: Overlay of scaled scores of the common items showing performance of students in Ethiopia, India and Vietnam

The graph here shows the comparative performance of three different countries on the Functional English test. It was seen that students in Ethiopia were at a lower score, where the graph was skewed at the left end of the mean value. Students in India scored higher than their counterparts in the other two countries. However, significant levels of overlap across the three countries were seen indicating that some students in Ethiopia scored considerably high in the test had students in India and Vietnam with similar comparable scores for students in India and Vietnam.

When the graph was overlaid with the proficiency level bands (Figure: 3), it was observed that a larger proportion of students in Ethiopia fell into the basic level of functional English skills. Students in Vietnam and India were also found at the basic level, but the numbers were more amongst Ethiopian students in this category.

Figure: 3: Scaled scores on the English test overlaid with the proficiency levels

Across all three countries, there were more students at the basic level than at the competent and proficient levels of Functional English skills. As seen in Table 2, more students in Ethiopia have Level 1 Functional English skills (basic), while more Vietnamese students were at the competent Functional English skills level and more Indian students are located at the proficient level.

Table: 2: Numbers of students in each proficiency band in each country

Overall, children at the basic level were found to be struggling with meaning-making, reading and comprehending longer texts, limiting their Functional English abilities to knowing the meaning and sentence construction for simpler questions.

Students across these countries who did well showed higher performance on comprehension skills with increasing ability to understand the text and to identify the implicit information conveyed through the text passage. These were also the questions that were mapped to level 3 (proficiency).

Details about this project and additional analysis of this data can be found here.

Acknowledgment: The School Effectiveness Survey was a joint project carried out by Educational Initiatives and Young Lives as part of the ongoing longitudinal study undertaken by the latter.

Gayatri Vaidya

Gayatri Vaidya

works with Large Scale Assessments, EI and enjoys working on improving learning levels of students belonging to various strata. Loves travelling in the company of a camera and a note pad 🙂
Gayatri Vaidya