Sep 3

Some thoughts on testing in English language teaching

CELTA resources
Testing in ELT
An introduction to testing and assessment in English language teaching. Why do it, things to think about and an overview of some commonly taken exams.
Transcript - Testing

If this word makes you feel like this, and gives you an image that looks like this, you wouldn't be alone. But testing and assessment is a big part of teaching. So in this video, we're going to look at some reasons for testing English language learners, some thoughts about English language tests. We're going to have a bit of an overview of some of the most major of the tests that exist out there.

So here we go. Let's start with this. Why take exams at all? When you're learning something, it's a good idea to know where you're starting from. This is usually called a diagnostic test. And it might be used as a placement test, so that you know which class to put a learner in, or maybe as a needs analysis, especially if you're teaching one to one or in small groups, that will help you to know where to pitch your lessons. The other good reason to test of course, is when you've gone down the road a little bit further. And you want to know how much your learners have actually learned. So progress tests are for formative assessment, that's just a fancy way of describing tests that help teachers and learners to know what they need to do next, and achievement tests, a summative assessment, which just means assessment at the end of a unit of study.

There are lots of good reasons to take exams actually, They can be really motivating for learners and they can help to show progress. If you have an exam to work towards, it does tend to focus the mind and language learning is a really long journey. So having points along the way to aim for can help to break it down and make it a bit more manageable. You can also use exams as evidence of achievement to other stakeholders. So for example, employers or parents, perhaps. But it has to be said that the idea of exams can be scary and rather stressful.

You have to remember that testing isn't only about exams. As well as the big final thing, there's also tests in class, quizzes, even puzzles or games are actually all part of testing learners. Informal testing happens all the time in classes, if you're doing these things, all these, all these, then you're testing your learners, you're finding out what they know. It doesn't have to be the teacher who makes the test. You could give your learners a unit in the course book that they've done, and ask them in groups to construct a test for another group. This is a really good way to recap what you've covered, they'll quite enjoy trying to catch each other out.

You could also do continuous assessment, portfolio based, perhaps on paper in some sort of book, or even better, maybe online. This I think is a really good way of getting your learner's to see how far they've come. If you get them to look back on some writing that they've done, or even better, maybe a short video that they've made three, four months ago, they'll see progress, hopefully. And that can be really motivational.

When you're constructing a test, there are a few things to think about. I really like this quote from Einstein, I'll leave you to read it.

Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.

It's only fair and reasonable to make tests success orientated, to give them things that they can reasonably do. You need to make sure that your test is valid. Does it actually cover the material that you've taught them? Also, is it reliable? Will it give the same result for different classes? If a different teacher marks it, will it get the same results? Is it practicable?.. it's no good designing a fabulous test that takes three hours to administer if you only see that class for 45 minutes a week. It's also worth thinking about whether there are any useful spin offs from a test. Will it help to recap what you've done? Will it be motivational?

If you're thinking of actually writing tests, which you may well have to do, then there are a couple of things to think about.

Tests fall into two categories. There's discrete item tests, and holistic tests. Let's have a look at holistic testing first. So this is the idea of something which tests all of their language skills. So it might be a piece of creative writing or speaking tasks or something like that. These kinds of tasks tend to be very quick to write, the questions are usually very short, but they take much longer to mark. And they're more subjective to mark. So if you've got different markers, different teachers, different classes, you need to standardize in some way, and that, of course, can affect the validity.

The other side of the coin is discrete item testing. So that's things like gap-fills, cloze tests, vocabulary items, things like that. These tend to take much longer to construct. They take longer to write, but they're very quick to mark. There's a trade off there. And they're much more objective. They're either right or wrong. The question mark over validity here is whether or not they really test language. If you can fill in the gap, is that the same as being able to communicate in a language? Good tests, of course, tend to include both of these things.

Let's move on to having a look at some external exams. Now, there are many exams that are set by external bodies that language learners take all the time. And of course, taking something by a particular accredited body means that it's going to be more recognized internationally, probably. I can't take you through all of the exams that exist. But I just want to show you a couple of things which are commonly taken and popular, and it's worth knowing the acronyms for. Before we start on the exams, though, another useful acronym is this one, the CEFR. It's the Common European Framework of Reference. And it gives 'can do' statements for different levels. So there are six of these from A1 just complete beginner to C2, which is advanced. This is becoming really well used in coursework, materials, and exams, so it's worth being aware of these levels, at least so that you've got an idea of what's being talked about.

One of the most popular suites of exams that's taken and recognized worldwide for general English comes from Cambridge English Assessment. There are five levels ranging from A2 Key English Tests, through B1 Preliminary, B2 Cambridge First, Cambridge Advanced (C1) and Proficiency at C2. The most popular one is this one, which used to be called FCE, but now is called B2 First. Although it's called First Certificate, it's actually an upper intermediate level exam. So if you've got this level of English, employers are quite interested in it. It means you've reached a pretty good level. It's a skills based exam and it's got speaking, writing and listening, and a reading paper that also includes grammatical accuracy questions that they call 'Use of English'. Some examples of some of these 'Use of English' tests are things like vocabulary testing, cloze tests, where you've got four possible items and have vocabulary to put in, or cloze tests which test grammar where you just have to fill in the gap without having a multiple choice. There are also these kinds of sentence transformation where you have to change one sentence to another sentence, including particular words. Learners often find these quite challenging. At the top end of things, we've got C1 Advanced (this used to be CAE) and C2 Proficiency (used to be CPE). You might hear those terms. Still, these exams have the same structure as Cambridge First but obviously at a higher level. Proficiency, particularly would indicate that somebody has near native levels of English.

Two other exams that you'll probably hear about are for academic English. So these are called IELTS and TEFL. They're mostly taken by students who want to study in an English speaking university, but they're also both used for permanent residency applications in some countries. IELTS is from the British Council, and it's really widely recognized in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and more and more in the States as well. It's also a skills based exam, but there are no grammar questions here. Just reading, writing, speaking and listening. The topics are all geared towards more academic English, so learners need to have a really good vocabulary. The reading in particular, tends to be quite difficult, especially for students who don't have a European language as their first language. There aren't many cognates between Arabic, for example, and English, so it's much more difficult for somebody like that than if you're Italian when a lot of academic vocabulary is going to look very, very familiar to you. There's no pass or fail here. There's just a graded system from zero to nine, where nine is the highest. And there are also half grades, so you could get 6.5, for example. You can see the descriptors here, if you want to pause the video. Most universities will ask for six or seven, it depends a bit on the course. TEFL is similar exam, again, it's really widely recognized, tends to be more prevalently used in the States and North America, but also in Europe. If you want to have a look at past papers for any of these things, then Google of course, is your friend.

I hope that that's given you a bit of an idea of testing, why you might do it, how you might do it, and what kind of exams your learners might be looking to take. See you soon. Bye bye.
Created with