Language Lover to Assessment Expert

  • “Everybody says English standards in Hong Kong are falling. It’s easy to say, but nobody’s got any real evidence,” says Professor David Coniam.
Growing up in a working class family in southwest England, Professor David Coniam became interested in languages while studying French at the age of 12. During his secondary school years, he learned French, Italian, Spanish, German and Russian at school. “I just enjoyed doing languages and everything associated with a new language,” he says.  
The boy’s passion for languages has become his lifetime career.  Chair Professor and Head of Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Professor Coniam is a renowned academic in language assessment.  It all started in 1974.  That year, after graduating with a BA in Spanish and Portuguese from the University of Southampton, he travelled to Spain to teach English in a private school.  Realising his interest in teaching, he later studied the Post Graduate Diploma of Education in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in England.  “It was where I met my wife who was doing the same course,” he says with a smile.   
After graduating in 1977, the couple moved to Iran where Professor Coniam taught English at a teacher education college.  When they moved to Hong Kong in 1979, Professor Coniam started off teaching English at the British Council, while studying a distance learning master degree in Applied English Linguistics through the University of Birmingham.  
Developing Examination Papers
A turning point that led him to the field of language assessment occurred in 1986.  He joined the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) as a subject officer for English, and was responsible for developing English language  public exam papers.  Each year, he led a committee of five who designed the exam papers -- not an easy job.  He had to produce exam papers with zero error under tight security, and faced the pressure of setting exams that broadly fitted the student population.  
“Take HKCEE’s Syllabus B for example, where the candidates range from those who are struggling with English --- to students whose  standards are close to native English speakers,” he says. “We were trying to pitch exam questions to fit broadly somewhere in the middle of this huge range, which was very difficult to do.”  He would have at least one English teacher from a mid-range school and an academic who knew the standards well on the committee to set the exam questions. “We were mindful to be as fair as we could.”
In 1990, he embarked on an academic career by joining the Chinese University (CUHK) as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education.  He gained a PhD in analysis of grammar via computers from the University of Birmingham and began to research topics he was naturally interested in.
Follow Your Heart
“A lot of people do a PhD on a topic such as on psychological motivation, and that’s what they pursue for the next 30 years. My research areas are very broad, and I just follow my heart and what I enjoy doing,” he says, as a professor with profound research interests in language assessment, teaching methodology, online tests and marking, and computer assisted language learning.
In 2001, he achieved a milestone through co-establishing English benchmarks, namely the Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers of English (LPATE), which has become the minimum standard for English teachers.  He was also greatly involved in another ground-breaking project to validate the HKEAA’s move to the onscreen marking of public examinations in the 2000s.  In 2007, he became Head of Department at CUHK.  In 2012, he moved to the HKIEd.  Recently he has launched a project to investigate the impact of the LPATE and whether local teachers’ English standards have improved.   “Everybody says English standards in Hong Kong are falling.  It’s easy to say, but nobody’s got any real evidence,” says he, who expects to release his findings in late 2016.
Over the years, Professor Coniam’s hard work has led to 164 publications and helped him build a reputation.   Asked how he wants his studies to help society, Professor Coniam says, “I like doing research that has an impact, doing something worthwhile you are remembered for, and I would like to have my student teachers remember me and implement what I taught them.”

Department of Curriculum and Instruction