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Iwona Misztal - sTANDEM project

Iwona Misztal - sTANDEM project

Iwona Misztal is the project manager for the sTANDEM project, bringing together ten international partners to develop necessary language assessment tools for the medical industry.

What is sTANDEM?

- sTANDEM stands for Standardised Language Certificate for Medical Purposes. It is an examination system intended to promote, assess and certify the command of professional second-language skills among health care professionals world-wide.

Why did you launch the sTANDEM project?

- The health sector and the biomedical domain have long been struggling with a lack of transparent methods for testing and evaluating the specific second-language skills that are required for both professional and study purposes. There is still no international examination designed to test the specific language skills that are needed by health care professionals to be able to effectively communicate across language borders in their working environment in which English is becoming more and more common. To date employers in the health care industry lack the tools which could, in a reliable way, assess the linguistic competence of foreigners who need to communicate in English at work. This is why a group of experts in the field, mostly language teachers at European medical universities, have taken the initiative to fill this gap and set new standards for professional second-language assessment and certification in the biomedical domain.

It seems that there is a wide range of different standardised examinations on the market. Wouldn’t they sufficiently assess the linguistic skills needed in the health care sector?

- Most of the standardised examinations focus on testing general language skills (e.g. FCE, CAE) or the ability of candidates to use English in an academic context (so-called EAP exams, which is short for English for Academic Purposes, e.g. IELTS or TOEFL). None of these examinations can reliably assess language skills specifically needed by health professionals such as history taking, understanding and completing medical records, discussing medical cases with colleagues, etc.

It is hard to believe that no attempts have been made so far to design a testing system focusing specifically on the language competencies needed by health care professionals.

Actually, there has been a number of local initiatives in different countries, the best-known probably being the Occupational English Test (OET), which is offered to health care professionals from overseas wishing to work in Australia or New Zealand. What is still missing, though, is an international standard that can be used for assessing the domain-specific linguistic proficiency of health care professionals in different languages and in different countries.

So how do employers in the UK deal with the problem that there is no reliable examination for testing language proficiency in the medical context?

Doctors applying for work in the UK are still required to take the PLAB (Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board) test, which despite its name is limited to testing professional medical knowledge in the form of a quiz. While it may be argued that it also tests reading comprehension, it does not test listening, speaking and writing skills and, therefore, cannot be regarded as a full-fledged language test. This is probably the reason why an additional language test was introduced. At present, candidates who apply for taking the PLAB exam are first required to pass the academic IELTS examination which tests language skills in an academic context but not specifically for the medical domain.

Are the language requirements the same for all health care professionals?

- Language requirements differ depending on the profession and the employer. For example companies in the pharmacy sector seem to doubt that the quite general EAP types of tests such as the IELTS examination can reliably assess the language skills of people seeking employment in pharmacies. Two leading pharmacy chains in the UK have developed their own examinations to support their recruitment processes.

So is it a good solution for employers to define the standards of language that are needed in their companies or institutions?

- Involving employers in the process of examination design and validation is of great value and should not be underestimated. However, few employers in the health care sectors have a team of experts including linguists and properly trained examiners who are able to assess the language skills of potential international employees in a professional way. Therefore, these exams cannot be regarded as standardised testing systems that meet the requirements of the Council of Europe for language assessment.

What exactly are these requirements?

- In short, a set of guidelines called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has been developed to set up validated systems for assessing language proficiency. It has become obvious that in order to standardise language testing, the CEFR must become the point of reference for any language testing system, including language tests for specific purposes. Today, the CEFR is not only widely used across Europe but is quickly becoming the standard reference for assessing language competence also in other parts of the world.

To what extent will sTANDEM examinations be compliant with the CEFR?

- The sTANDEM examination system will be directly linked to the CEFR. First of all, the language competence required at different levels of language proficiency for the medical domain will be based on the CEFR descriptors. Also the sTANDEM specifications regulating the details of the examination structure will be developed in accordance with CEFR guidelines.

So at which levels can candidates take sTANDEM exams?

- We aim to develop sTANDEM examinations at three CEFR levels: B1 (lower intermediate), B2 (upper intermediate), and C1 (advanced).

What do the sTANDEM tests assess?

- They will test all four language skills, namely reading, listening, writing and speaking. Each of the papers will assess the candidates’ language proficiency in medical settings.

Which languages will be assessed and certified in the sTANDEM examinations?

- Initially, a broad spectrum of sTANDEM exams covering all three CEFR levels will be available for English.

How much is the examination fee?

- Since the sTANDEM project has been granted financial support by the European Commission under the Lifelong Learning Programme for the years 2011 – 2014, all examinations provided until October 2014 will be offered free of charge. Later on an examination fee will be introduced to cover the expenses of developing, administering and evaluating the examinations.

What are the target groups for sTANDEM exams?

- The exam can be taken by doctors, biomedical researchers, pharmacists, dentists, nurses and other allied health care providers as well as students of medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, physiotherapy, as well as other health care and life sciences professionals.


Iwona Misztal

Project Manager at
Iwona is a senior lecturer who has been teaching English for Medical Purposes at the Jagiellonian University Medical College for 10 years. Her expertise includes the development of specialist language courses which are provided in "blended" learning and "distance" learning mode. Her main fields of interest are the integration of ICT tools and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) methodology, rapid learning and e-learning course development and assessment of linguistic skills for professional purposes. She is a project manager of two international projects in this field: and