Reasonable, Relevant and Realistic: How to Organize ESL Speaking Tests

Reasonable, Relevant and Realistic
How to Organize ESL Speaking Tests

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 13,690 views

I’m so certain it’s true that I’m going to state it as a fact: Everyone hates being tested.

It’s a time of stressful uncertainty, self-doubt and anxiety. It means facing the unexpected and the potentially impossible. For some people, it becomes not only a measure of their ability in a certain field, but a judgement of their worth as a human being.

You might have been fortunate enough to have sailed through your high school or college exams; my viva voce exams at university consisted of an hour spent staring into an abyss of dread and failure (although, miraculously, I passed first time). With this in mind, I’ve been working to take the stress out of testing, and to create a comfortable environment in which the student feels both at ease and capable of doing their very best. This is no more important than in spoken tests, especially in a second language.

ESL Speaking Tests Should Be…

Realistic. They should mirror the events and circumstances one is likely to find, and use the language as it will be used ‘in action’. A mix of ‘set piece’ conversations (the post office, grocer’s shop, etc) and less scripted, everyday conversations (the weather, sports, family, school) often proves useful.

Relevant. The tests should relate very closely (even, perhaps, exclusively) to the content of the course. We’re here to establish whether the appropriate level of language acquisition has happened; that purpose should always be kept in mind.

Reasonable. Conversely, we’re not here to trick our students or catch them out. Every opportunity should be provided for the student to demonstrate their capabilities, not simply jump through artificial hoops created by the examiners. So, don’t ask questions on topics you’ve never studied, or expect the student to understand a question phrased in the past perfect progressive passive if that’s not something you’ve taught them and helped them to practice.

Broken into Sections. A change of pace and scenery can revitalize a flagging, nervous student. Whether successfully dealt with or not, short sections can quickly be consigned to history, and renewed focus brought to the task at hand. I signify these changes by turning over a page of my book, or a card with questions written on it, as if to say, “We’re done with that one; forget about it!”

Prepared. Given that we’re not in the business of catching our students out, it seems reasonable to give them practice time by providing the format of the test in advance. A class or two can be spent preparing for the challenges they will face, so that from the moment they walk into the examination room, the environment feels (at least somewhat) familiar.

Targeted. The way your tests are organized depends on the structure and content of the semester itself. What were your main learning aims? I would advise that you target these areas for ESL students:

  • Language acquisition. Has the student absorbed the vocabulary and structures of the semester?
  • Fluency. Can the student keep on speaking without help or long pauses for thought?
  • Spontaneity. Is the student using the language independently, or do they sound ‘rehearsed’ or ‘coached’?
  • Accuracy. Is the student using the semester’s grammar without mistakes?
  • Conversation Skills. This may or may not have been a focus of your work, but it’s a terrific aspect to include. Is the student able to ask their own questions, or does this feel more like a one-sided interview?
  • Listening. Do the examiners find they need to repeat their questions or comments? Are the students responses indicative of a genuine understanding of the question?

Format the Exam Expertly

  1. 1

    Team Them Up

    For many years, I’ve organized my students into pairs for their speaking exams. Listening to them engage each other in conversation - even in the admittedly unnatural arena of the exam room - teaches us a lot more about their skills than a one-sided interrogation by a teacher. It takes preparation and practice, but I’ve come to feel that pair-testing is a more organic embodiment of language use, as well as being a good opportunity to pair together people who will, we hope, help each other towards a good result.

  2. 2

    Find Balanced Pairs

    In pairing up the students, it’s important to consider their relative levels, particularly their willingness to be talkative; having one student dominate while the other sits in expectant silence isn’t a good way to test. Instead, use your experience of this group in their classroom work and select pairs which you feel will work well. This will not always be students of a similar level, but more likely those of a similar disposition or attitude.

  3. 3

    Keep It Real

    However you choose to organize the test, I would encourage you not to allow the student to deliver a prepared speech. This unhelpfully compounds the artifice of an exam situation. Very few circumstances require a memorized recitation - a presentation or public speaking class is the only exception I can think of - so insist on this being a natural and spontaneous use of language.

  4. 4

    Provide Topics for Preparation

    I give the students three or four topics to consider in the week before the test. I stress that, given they’re in pairs, they won’t be able to recite a prepared screed, but that they should bring together the vocabulary and structures necessary to express their thoughts on this topic. For example, while preparing with my Business English students for a recent speaking test, I invited them to consider this language when faced with the topic, “Successful Marketing”:

    Eye-catching    Novel    Colorful    Demographic    Viral    Appeal    Word-of-mouth

  5. 5

    Be Random

    Alongside these prepared topics, there’s nothing wrong with throwing your students something of a curve ball, provided that it pertains to the semester’s work and isn’t likely to be beyond their capabilities. If you’ve been studying marketing, for instance, consider a topic relating to corpoorate influence, consumer habits, or the privacy issues thrown up by data collection. If you’ve run a Current Events class, broaden your topics and consider not only the Ukraine crisis, but the prospects for world peace, and the future of Russia-EU relations.

    At a much simpler level, consider tossing in a few personal questions to check understanding. If one of your topics was ‘food’, then perhaps ask, “What did you have for dinner last night?” Move on from this to test the students’ tenses, and/or model verbs: “What might you have for lunch today?” Stretch things a little with, “What foods in this country have surprised you?” or, “Which foods from your country do you think people here would like?”


    Organize your grading criteria long before the test by plugging in the semester’s learning aims and assigning each aspect its own weight. What were the focuses of your course? What has already been tested? What have the students reviewed the most recently? A typical grading breakdown looks like this:

    Fluency 20%
    Grammar Modals 10%
      Conditionals 10%
      Question forms 10%
      Other (tenses, plurals, pronouns, etc) 10%
    Pronunciation (Especially ‘th’ and ‘s/z’) 20%
    Conversation Skills 10%
    Listening 10%

I might be naïve, but I genuinely hope that my students enjoy their tests and see them as an opportunity to show me the learning and growing they have done during a semester.

I keep a light-hearted tone, avoid dwelling on mistakes, and encourage the students to speak as much as possible, to give me plenty of data on which to base their grade.

If something goes wrong or the student clams up, smiling and simply waving the problem away seems to get the best results; I’m never in the mood to punish or rebuke during a test, simply to discover how much learning has happened, and how well my students can communicate what they want to say.

I encourage you to try this relaxed, low-stress, well-prepared method for getting the best from your students on testing day.

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