5 Keys to Designing and Conducting Effective ESL Speaking Tests

5 Keys to Designing and Conducting Effective ESL Speaking Tests

Claudia Pesce
by Claudia Pesce 79,200 views

Most ESL students approach English classes with the desire to improve their communication skills in English.

A great deal of the day-to-day activities involves speaking tasks. So why is it that we give more importance to the written exam than to the speaking test?

The answer is quite obvious. Written tests are easier to design and easier to grade – after all most answers are clearly right or wrong. But how do you design a speaking test and furthermore, how do you grade your ESL students when there are so many things to evaluate? How do you design effective speaking tests, i.e. tests that really evaluate your students’ progress in terms of oral communication skills? Let me break it down for you into five essential points:

The 5 Keys to Designing and Conducting Effective Speaking Tests

  1. 1

    Lower Teacher Participation

    The first thing you’ll have to consider when designing effective speaking tests is that you’ll have to speak less. A lot less. Your students should do all of the speaking, in fact, and you should simply listen. Try to avoid speaking tasks where you have to participate, unless of course you are testing a single, private student.

  2. 2

    Create a List of Objectives

    One of the things I always recommend is that you constantly remind students of the objectives they’ve met. These objectives are not things like “learning the simple past” but more practical, context-based goals like “learning to talk about what you did in the recent past”.

    The purpose of the speaking test is not only to test your students’ abilities to function in an English-speaking environment and see to what extent they have developed their communication skills, but also show your students that they have indeed mastered the objectives you set forth for them at the start of the term. When designing the test, think back to all of the practical situations and everyday scenarios your students learned to navigate throughout the term. Your list of objectives may look like this if you have beginners:

  3. 3

    Include Different Types of Speaking Tasks

    Once you have defined the topics you want to test them on, define the types of speaking tasks they’ll need to complete. I suggest at least two different types, but if you have time to include three, so much the better.

    The first speaking task should be an activity where each student has 60 seconds to talk about something. You can do a number of things:

    • Give them a short paragraph to read and ask them to report back in their own words (for example, a short celebrity bio);
    • They listen as you read a short paragraph and then report back in their own words;
    • Give them a “topic card”. They must read the topic or question and speak about it for 60 seconds, for example, “Tell us about the things you like to do in your free time”.

    The second speaking task could be an interview type of activity. Divide students into pairs and give them a topic they must ask each other questions about, for example, “Find out what your partner likes to do in his/her free time”. After the interview, each student must report his/her findings.

    The last speaking task should be a role play. Prepare role cards for a variety of situations and hand them out. For instance, Role Card 1A could say: You want to invite your friend to the movies but you need to find out what day and hour is best for him/her.
    Role Card 1B can say: Your friend wants to go to the movies but you’re busy Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening.

  4. 4

    Design an Evaluation Rubric

    How do you grade your students across these various tasks? Prepare an evaluation rubric. First you have to decide exactly what you’ll evaluate. How about objective (if they achieved it), accuracy (if they made grammar/usage mistakes) and vocabulary (including expressions and set phrases)? I suggest something like this:

    Reporting: Objective ___/10
    Accuracy ___/10
    Vocabulary ___/10
    Average ___
    Interview: Objective ___/10
    Accuracy ___/10
    Vocabulary ___/10
    Average ___
    Role Play: Objective ___/10
    Accuracy ___/10
    Vocabulary ___/10
    Average ___
      Final Grade ___

    I’d give 10-9 points to students who communicate clearly and effectively and make practically no mistakes; 8-7 to those who make few mistakes; 6-5 to those who make enough mistakes so that they are not clear some of the time; 4-3 to those who were very hard to understand; and 2-1 who did not come even close to completing the task. But these are just suggestions. You can also use this rubric available from Scholastic.com.

  5. 5

    Give Feedback

    Finally, just as essential as the test itself, and more important than the grade/score, is the feedback you’ll give your students on how they performed. Did they meet the objective for the task, i.e. did they find out the information they were supposed to find out? Did they repeat the same words or expressions? Did they make mistakes related to grammar and usage? Did they speak too little/too much? Don’t forget to first tell them what they did great, and then tell them what they need to improve: Maria, you used great vocabulary and remembered all the right expressions. You need to focus on choosing the right verb tense.

Follow this blueprint, and you’ll not only effectively gauge how much your students have learned, you’ll also give them the opportunity to see for themselves.

What is your experience with speaking tests? If you have any specific tips to add, share them below!

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