I recently had a chat with Sujata Stead and Barbara Zhang of Cambridge Boxhill Language Assessment. I wanted to find out more about the Occupational English Test as I had read about some changes coming in. A very informative chat. I had started with the feeling (shared by some of my students) that the writing test was not relevant for nurses. After all, we said, nurses don't write referral letters any more. However, I have been won over after hearing about the amount of research which has been undertaken to assess the usefulness of this type of writing test.
It comes down to the fact that the writing test assesses the ability to scan patient information which is presented in an authentic format i.e effectively a discharge summary. Whilst the writing of a referral letter may not be usual practice for ward nurses, it is still the practice of certain nurses e.g. in specialised clinics. For ward nurses, the ability to structure patient notes or an incident report in a way that is clear and understandable is always needed. So, my conclusion is that the format of a referral letter is transferrable to other written texts.
Another question was about the lack of feedback for students on their marks. I have students who have attempted the OET several times, receiving a 'C' in writing but seeming to be improving in their writing during their practice sessions. Their wish was to know where they were losing marks i.e.in what criteria. The answer was that it is felt that by pointing out errors, students tend to concentrate only on correcting those mistakes the next time and neglect the 'whole picture'. I can appreciate this but welcome the thought that there may be more information available soon on marking criteria.
I feel the OET is a very useful test to assess the long-term language abilities of future healthcare workers. In other words, the use of appropriate spoken language in a healthcare oriented role play can be recycled in authentic practice. Communication skills such as empathising with a patient, reassuring a patient before a procedure, gently advising a patient to change lifestyle habits, convincing a patient to remain in hospital for treatment, dealing with a patient who is agitated and many more. In the same way, the writing task should help to predict the healthcare worker's ability to produce appropriate written texts such as variance reports on a care pathway, adverse incident reports, messages to colleagues, requests for treatment or assessment of patients and many more.
Testing English for Medical Purposes carries an added responsibility. The OET is not only testing basic English communication, it is testing safe practice from a linguistic point of view. It is not only desirable but vital that communication verbally and in written forms should be clear so that patient safety is not compromised.
I am looking forward to developing my skills in teaching OET preparation in the future.