5 (Not So) Surprising Factors that May Affect Your ESL Students’ Test Scores

5 (Not So) Surprising Factors that May Affect Your ESL Students’ Test Scores

Claudia Pesce
by Claudia Pesce 40,906 views

When ESL students don’t do so well on the test, what do you think? That they didn’t study? It’s not that simple.

Although no one questions the importance of preparing for a test, success in passing or getting good scores in an ESL test is determined by several factors, most of which come into play way before the actual moment students take the test. Here are the five factors you should keep in mind and what you can do to help your students achieve success.

5 Factors that May Affect Your Students’ Scores or Performance

  1. 1

    Self-study Time

    First on the list is a factor that a lot of students underestimate, particularly adult learners. They show up for class, pay attention, actively participate and leave the classroom thinking, “My work is done.” This could not be further from the truth. The work your students do in class is actually only the beginning. This may not be the case for other subjects or classes, but ESL is a whole other ballgame. Let’s backtrack and think about why students take ESL lessons. They need to improve their English communication skills. And they won’t achieve this goal, let alone do well on the test, simply by attending classes, no matter how hard they work during class.

    What to do: Whether you have young learners or teens who are accustomed to doing homework, or adults who say they never have time, you must encourage them to do some extra work at home on a regular basis. Now, if you give them really creative and fun homework assignments, there won’t be any excuses.

  2. 2


    Out of the five, this one’s the most obvious reason why some students don’t do well in tests. And this is often a big problem in adult ESL learners. We must accept the fact that they have busy lives, impossible schedules and often make a huge effort to come to class. But if they are absent one too many times, it will undoubtedly affect their performance.

    What to do: You can’t force students to come to class. But you can help your students be accountable for what they fail to do. If you have students who are frequently absent make sure they understand what the consequences are.

  3. 3

    Test Anxiety

    This is a factor that comes into play when students are taking standardized tests like the Cambridge ESOL or TOELF, TOEIC, etc… Have you ever had students who did brilliantly in the practice tests, but then failed the real deal? Sometimes students don’t do well on a test, not because of a lack of preparation but because, simply put, they get so nervous they can’t perform to their full potential.

    What to do: Training and preparation for a test goes a long way towards soothing nerves and insecurities. Make sure they are more than familiar with the test structure and know exactly what is expected of them. Finally, the best way to calm anxiety or panic is to tell them that they should simply do their best. In the worst case scenario, they can take the test the following year, and they will have a valuable testing experience under their belt.

  4. 4

    Understanding of the Test structure

    Often, students don’t do well on a test because they don’t understand the test structure: they don’t know what they’re supposed to answer or write, or how they should respond.

    What to do: Naturally, when students are taking tests like the Cambridge ESOL, they should be familiar with all of the sections and parts and what is required of them in each. For your own tests, don’t forget to tell students exactly what to expect. Will you be giving them a multiple choice test? Is there are speaking task? A writing task? Don’t surprise them with these things on the day of the test.

  5. 5

    Focus on Fluency

    This is one of factors that you should be paying attention to right from the start. Let’s assume your students are taking ESL lessons to improve their English speaking skills – their goal is to attain fluency. But some students lose sight of this fact and don’t study to attain fluency, they study to pass the test. So they memorize rules and make charts and lists, which is fine, but when you ask them to reply to you in a conversation they don’t know what to say.

    What to do: Studying English as second language is not like studying math or science. In fact, it’s not even how kids in English-speaking countries usually study English. In ESL, the focus is on acquiring a second language and improving communication skills in this language. Help your students understand they should strive to communicate in a meaningful way, in writing or speaking, instead of memorize the rules for reported speech. They won’t be asked the rules on the test, but they will be expected to use real, everyday English.

Now, why is all of this important?

While it’s great that you give your students plenty of chances to review before a major test, it’s also essential that you keep these factors in mind from the start, not only to guarantee good test scores, but also ensure that your students are getting the level of fluency they aim to obtain.


If you have identified any other factors that affect student performance on tests, please share them below!

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