ESL Speaking Tests: 3 Options

There are various ways for language teachers to do ESL speaking tests, all of which have their positives and negatives. I will give only the most basic of overviews of three different speaking test methods for English as a Second Language students, but if you want to dive deeper into the topic, I recommend this book: Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices (2nd Edition).

1-1 interviews with the teacher

This method is generally thought to have the highest validity, since weaker students cannot affect the stronger students in any way. However, I think there are more negatives than positives:

  1. The power dynamic which can come into play

  2. The necessity to have students, alone in an office or classroom. This is something that I’ll always try to avoid if possible.

  3. Exhaustion on the part of a teacher. It just simply takes a lot of time and mental energy.

  4. The teacher needs to serve as examiner and conversation partner, which can get tricky at times, especially at the end of a long day of tests.

Conversations and Role-Plays

Most teachers make the student conduct them 1-1 while the teacher just listens, observes and evaluates. The big negative of this one is that a weaker student can affect a stronger student, and although the teacher accounts for this in grading, it can often be seen as “not fair” in the student’s eyes. However, there are lost of positives:

  1. No power dynamics

  2. It can at least partly replicate “real” conversation, where the people are at a similar level of English ability.

  3. The teacher can just focus on listening and not have to act as a conversation partner.

  4. Students often feel less nervous with at least one other person in the room besides the teacher.

Presentations

These are perhaps the easiest on the part of the teacher to administer, especially in groups. You can “test” a group of 30 students in as little as a single 1.5 hour class. The negatives are that it doesn’t replicate “conversation” at all and this is most often what courses consist of at, especially at universities. But, if the teacher actually spends time teaching students how to do presentations, it can be a valuable life-skill that students can take with them throughout their lives.

If you do decide to teach and test students on their presentation skills, the best resource I recommend is: Speaking of Speech: Basic Presentation Skills for Beginners. I’ve taught presentations for years and have stuck with this book the entire time, with excellent results.

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