When you tell your ESL students that there’s a test coming up, they won’t be surprised. Tell them that the “grade” is not important, and they just might be a little bewildered.
You see, ESL students still think like “students” who need to get a certain “grade” in order to “pass the course”. And while it may be necessary to give them the official grade or score, your students’ goal should not be to “pass the course” with a certain grade. Their goal should be to speak English better. The test is a way for you - and for them - to see how much they’ve learned, how much more they can speak English now than before.
So, when you create a test, think about ways to show them exactly this – how much they’ve progressed – and by contrast which things they need to continue working on. Here are the 7 keys to designing tests that will achieve just that.
7 Keys to Creating Effective Tests
Remember the Incentive
If your students’ incentive for taking the ESL class is speaking English better, you should design a test that works towards motivating them further. The test should be challenging enough to put them to the test, but not too hard. Some teachers pride themselves in giving tough tests that only a select few are able to pass. But this is demoralizing to ESL students and won’t encourage them to continue studying.
Don’t make the entire test multiple choice. Include one of those and then a fill in the blanks or a matching exercise. Some students are better at reading and writing, others at listening and speaking. Make sure you evaluate each of the four skills equally. In addition to the usual written tasks, give them a short reading/writing assignment (an email they must read and reply to), a reading assignment (with a multiple choice, true/false exercise, or open-ended questions) and a listening task (a short audio to listen to (or video to watch!) or a set of questions you may choose to read them), as well as a separate speaking test, where students will have the chance to show off their communication skills
Adjust to Students’ Level and Ages
Young learners will do great with multiple choice and matching tasks that include images. Include fewer images the older they get. Adult learners should do more reading and writing, maybe less matching. Try different exercise types that are suited to your students’ level and ages.
Think in Terms of Goals
Does each task help you evaluate what you want to evaluate? Are the learning goals clear and apparent for each task? For example, a matching task where you have words on one side and the definitions on the other clearly evaluates vocabulary. A fill in the blanks exercise that you must complete with the right verb tense clearly evaluates grammar. But what if one of the goals is to “speak English on the telephone”? You could have a phone conversation with part of the dialogue missing, which your students have to complete.
Don’t Throw Them a Curve Ball
It’s good to be creative with the types of questions and tasks you give them, but don’t give them a task they’ve never done before the test. They may get confused or not understand the instructions, and you don’t want to be responsible for creating a feeling of insecurity when they should be feeling the opposite. Never test them on something they’ve never seen before or use words they may not know.
Use Real People, Settings and Contexts, not Fictional Ones
If you include a short paragraph for reading comprehension, make it a biography of a real person, for example, an actor, artist, or singer they admire. If it’s a description of a place, use a real place, not a fictional land that doesn’t exist. Remember, they’re learning to communicate in the real world.
Return the Test with More than Just a Grade
This is perhaps the most crucial element, one of those rare learning opportunities. The feedback you give each individual student will be a real eye-opener, a true assessment of what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they have successfully learned and what they need to continue working on. If you give feedback the right way – by mentioning both the students’ strengths and weaknesses – they get to take away more than just a number or a percentage on a piece of paper!
Throughout the year, you’ve given your class plenty of meaningful learning experiences.
The test experience, whether it’s a unit check or final test should be just as meaningful. Instead of learning something new, they’ll be able to see just how much they’ve learned and how far they’ve come along.
If you have any tips for creating tests that will make students feel good about what they’ve accomplished, share them below!