The PTE Algorithm is NOT a scam!

When the PTE was launched in 2009, it was the culmination of years of research by leading experts in language assessment from around the world. It was an ambitious objective: to assess the candidate’s communicative skills using authentically sourced material. Pearson’s complex algorithm was aiming to set a brand-new standard.

Prior to its launch, the other major English language test that was delivered by computer was the TOEFL. Even so, the TOEFL’s speaking and writing sections – the productive skills – are graded by human beings, not artificial intelligence.

The question then is, have Pearson been successful?

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is imperfect. An article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, titled “Outsmarting the computer: the secret to passing Australia’s English-proficiency test” told tales of native-speaking test takers who failed the PTE speaking section, including our erstwhile E2Language colleague, Kaia. She managed to get just 43 when she took the PTE first time, much to her chagrin, and wrote more than one blog post on her experience (which are well worth reading!).

So, why are ‘native speakers’ failing PTE Speaking?

In my opinion, complaints about the perceived ‘unfairness’ of the test algorithm are somewhat disingenuous. The comparison I would make is with obtaining your driving licence. I’m pleased to report that I got passed my driving test at my first attempt. How? By exaggerating everything I did while I drove, exactly as I had been taught! Checking my mirrors over and over, craning my neck as I parallel parked and indicating well before turning left or right well ahead of the junction. And it worked. Despite losing three or four minor points, I walked away happy as a sandboy, newly laminated licence in hand.

Naturally, I immediately abandoned much of what I’d been taught by my driving instructor (a profane, corpulent man called Colin). But that’s OK, I’m still a good driver. And in the same way, native speakers are still good speakers of English, despite failing the PTE speaking section. However, that’s almost always not the fault of the algorithm, but their lack of preparation.

So, let’s return to the PTE algorithm. A similar approach to learning how to drive will pay massive dividends when applied to the PTE. Treat it like a test of your ability to do the PTE rather than proof of your greatness in English. Instead of complaining that the “machine just can’t understand people from (name the place)!”, adjust the way you speak. It is not the accent the algorithm has a problem with, but other modifiable behaviour. So, remember these:

Tips to ‘beat’ the Algorithm

Pattern of Speech

Regardless of where you come from, there are ‘native-like’ ways of speaking. These are distinct from ‘foreign’ ways of speaking. You cannot speak English in the way you speak your native tongue. Similarly, when we’re doing public speaking, we moderate the way we speak so that people can understand what we’re saying. We slow down, we are mindful of our breathing and we speak out more consciously. The pauses between clauses – whether punctuated or not – are heightened for

Speed of delivery

Get this idiom fixed in your memory: “More haste, less speed.” Don’t be in too much of a hurry, since this can lead to unacceptable variations in your delivery. Appreciate that there are guided tasks (read aloud and repeat sentences) and independent tasks (describe image and retell lecture). It’s usually easier to do guided tasks since you know what you are meant to be saying. Moderate your pace when you read aloud so that you can do the same style when describing an image. Above all, you must pace yourself. The PTE algorithm is much more interested in quality rather than quantity.

Mumbling and Enunciation

The algorithm cannot mark you if it cannot hear you. Speak clearly and make sure you are being heard. Conversely, don’t shout like a lunatic. You’ll only end up distorting your sound and annoying everyone else in the exam room. While we’re at it, some people believe that women are at an unfair disadvantage to men in the PTE. The theory is that their voices are softer and therefore more difficult to record. This is categorically not the case.

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Bad habits

There are many of these, including umming and ahhing, going back and restarting a sentence and varying your pace depending on your level of confidence. Here I am highlighting a couple that might have a real impact in your PTE score.

Running on

If you do this, you tend to obliterate important punctuation, including full stops and commas. This is not unusual in South Asian speakers of English, for example. I often refer to it as the ‘machine gun’ effect, because it’s like the rat-a-tat of gunfire. Your speech shouldn’t be unrelenting, or it becomes overwhelming. Calm down, take a breath and pause it all the right places.

Up-Talk

There is a cultural aspect to this, in that Australian and other native speakers will often go up at the end of sentences that don’t require it. Normally we do so when asking questions, e.g.: “Do you know where the toilet is?” The upward intonation helps the listener to know that you’re asking a question. Compare this to saying, “We’re leaving early tomorrow.” It now sounds like a question, but its really a statement of intent. In short, if you’re not asking permission, try not to sound like you are.

One last idiom for you: “A bad workman always blames his tools.” I urge you not to blame the algorithm. Go into your PTE test properly prepared and you’ll ace it.

Colin David
PTE Expert
Dip TESOL

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