When you think of the words “assessment” and “test,” what comes to mind? If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of people think of multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, and a quiet classroom filled with students furiously writing down answers on a piece of paper.
Most assessments tend to work in this way, and, for a lot of circumstances, this method seems to work well. However, as a language teacher, the question arises of how to assess your students in a conversation class. If you’re working with a large class, one-on-one interviews can be really overwhelming, time-consuming, and, often, not possible.
Today we’re going to be talking more about how you can assess your speaking class in a way that makes sense for you. There are three main areas of speaking to pay attention to during an assessment, but we’re just going to focus on the first two: pronunciation and fluency. Accuracy, the final area, is a little bit more straightforward and more commonly addressed in ESL curriculum. Keep reading to learn more about how to test your students’ pronunciation and fluency, what to pay attention to, and how to find the perfect assessment tool for your classroom!
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A Note About Assessment:
The most important thing to keep in mind when creating your speaking assessment, or an assessment of any kind, is that your test should mirror the method and content that was taught in the course. If your class primarily focused on discussion and conversation, then your assessment should do the same. If your class spent a large amount of time writing and reading dialogues, your test should do the same.
While the three areas that we’re going to discuss assessing are all important parts of speaking a second language, you may find that you’re only focusing on one or two of these aspects of speaking. Pick and choose what will work for and what is important to you, your class objectives, and your students’ goals.
Pronunciation tends to be really important in a lot of ESL classes, and you may find that your students are really focused on improving their pronunciation and/or getting rid of their accent. While pronunciation certainly is important, when it comes to speaking assessments and, in particular, more informal speaking classes, the most important thing to pay attention to is whether the learner’s accent makes communication difficult.
Most ESL students aren’t going to get rid of their accent. It’s a part of speaking English in an increasingly diverse world, and accents should be embraced in the ESL classroom. However, what you may want to target during your assessment is making sure that you can still fully understand what your learner is communicating and that they’re able to properly pronounce a range of sounds.
Sentence and Paragraph Tests
One of the best ways to make sure that you’re creating a pronunciation assessment that will be easy to administer and grade is to use a sentence and/or paragraph test. A sentence and/or paragraph test is a test that you create by either choosing or writing sentences and paragraphs for your students to read out loud into a tape recorder that contain the sounds that you’ve taught and are assessing.
One of the biggest advantages of this type of test is that you’re able to completely customize the sentences in order to emphasize the sounds you’re focusing on. If you want to assess whether your students can properly pronounce words with a certain vowel sounds or that end in ‘-ing,’ then you can make sure that the text you’re using contains those sounds.
However, one of the downfalls of this type of test is that it’s a better assessment of how well your students can read out loud. We all know people that can speak fluently and easily, but have trouble reading out loud. When people read out loud they tend to read more formally and with more enunciation.
If you’re just looking to create a pronunciation test, this may not be a great indicator of how well your students can pronounce words in conversation. However, when used in conjunction with other tests, it’s a great way to specifically target sounds.
Fluency refers to how much language a student can speak, as opposed to accuracy which focuses on whether that language is correct or not. A lot of conversation classes, especially more informal conversation classes, focus solely on fluency.
Whether your only goal is that your students are able to communicate in English or whether fluency is one of many goals in your conversation class, it’s important to assess your students’ fluency. In the same way that some students have trouble reading out loud, some students also have trouble with fluency. These students may speak unnaturally slowly, pause frequently while speaking to search for words, use the wrong words for the wrong situations, and/or speak very simply and almost child-like.
One way that you could test your students’ fluency is through picture-based tests. With a picture-based test you can have your students either study a picture or a series of pictures in order to either describe or tell a story based on those images for a set amount of time. While this is a great way for your students to practice fluency, grading this type of test can be really difficult.
The question arises of how to grade fluency. While you could award points based on the use of subject-verb units and take away points for errors made in speech, is the use of subject-verb units the same as fluency? What about students who say things like, “I think he is running” versus the students who simply say “he is running?” One student would receive twice the points that the other student received, but is one more fluent than the other?
The other issue with grading this type of assignment is in how student errors are handled. While accuracy is an important part of fluency, it is secondary to communication. If a student’s message is communicated, but the student still makes a certain number of errors, they could potentially fail this assignment, while still accomplishing fluency.
Perhaps another solution to grading fluency is in conversation ladders. I’ve used conversation ladders a few times, especially when I was teaching in Mongolia for both needs assessment and as a final assessment.
A grid was made with different questions at each level that focused on different language skills and topics. Some of the easier levels simply had to do with communicating basic facts about oneself, such as job, interests, family, etc. The higher levels required both more complex topics and more complex language, such as where the student sees themselves in five years, what they would do if they won the lottery, etc.
The teacher simply conducts a one-on-one interview with their students in order to judge how far up the “ladder” the student could hold conversation. This type of assessment not only requires the student to speak English, but it also requires them to listen, comprehend, and respond to questions. It also allows the student to make a fair number of errors, as long as they’re maintaining clear communication that the teacher can follow. While this method of assessment is time-consuming, it gives you, as the teacher, the space to assess whether your students are struggling with questions or stumbling through answers.
While some might argue that speaking is one of the easier language subjects to teach to adult learners, assessing your students’ speaking progress is, perhaps, more difficult than assessing their grammar or even writing level. However, with a little bit of creativity, speaking assessments can be easy to administer and sometimes even fun!
Try out a few of these activities to find something that works for you. Assessment works best when it’s done often, not just at the end of your course or unit, which means that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try out a few different methods of assessment before finding what works best for your students and your own classroom objectives.
I Want to Hear From You!
How do you assess speaking in your classroom?
What’s your biggest focus in the conversation classroom? Does it differ from your students’ focus?