Tests and exams are a necessary part of education; they help us to gauge students’ progress, identify needs and to motivate learners in their journey through school to university and beyond.
Language assessment is quite different from other, knowledge-based exams, so in the field of language education, it is important to consider how we can prepare our students not just to pass a test, but to apply the items we teach them in real communication, demonstrating the skills for success in assessment in other situations where they use the language we teach.
Testing is one of the main stress factors for students the world over, so how can we, as teachers, understand the nature of language assessments in order to harness test situations as tools for all-round language development?
Understanding test outcomes
Whatever assessment situation your students are working towards, the test or exam will be designed according to a set of specified criteria. An IELTS exam, for example, has clear sets of speaking, listening, reading and writing skills, related language and topic-based vocabulary which will help students to perform to a high level at the end of their period of preparation.
Other tests such as the Trinity College London ESOL exams, test beyond language skills and usage, and assess a wider range of communicative competencies such as engagement with the examiner, proactive use of language, inference based on functional cues, and the ability to handle new information with spontaneity and flexibility.
Understanding the language and skills focus of a specific assessment is the first step to being able to develop your students’ language in the right areas, so it is worth looking into the exam specifications and finding content points which match the needs of your learners.
If you are not sure about the strengths and weaknesses of your learners in these ares lead a set of focused, diagnostic tests early in the course of study, and find strengths to work with as well as points for development in key exam areas.
A lesson or two of needs analysis can save a lot of unnecessary teaching later in a course.
Perhaps the best way to understand the workings of a language assessment is to sit down and do a timed sample test yourself. You will be surprised how much time management, quick thinking and question-specific skills you employ by running through the exam paper and reflecting on how you addressed the questions. You may even be surprised at your score – remember, students are typically quite well-trained to work on tests under pressure, so develop skills which you may not have thought about when you sit the test yourself!
I would recommend that anyone teaching language examinations practice what they preach and do an authentic exam themselves.
Identifying communicative opportunities
When considering the range of language and skills for success in a language assessment, think about how these items can be implemented into classroom practice. Often, this means finding tasks and activities from general as well as exam preparation textbooks, helping students to work on their language in these target areas in an engaging way.
Although language exams are typically divided into the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing, and incorporate grammar and vocabulary assessment within these broader areas, it is important to remember the value of language production in all activity that you lead in the classroom.
If your students don’t produce the forms they are learning, either in spoken tasks or in writing, it is impossible for you to gauge how effectively they can use the language they need on the day of the test. Push students for evidence of their ability by getting them talking about what they are learning, and putting it into written practice on a regular basis.
Designing communicative tasks (either spoken or written) opens up all the necessary language you teach and brings it out of the students’ internal knowledge and into their language performance.
Following these productive tasks with some reflection into why the activity was important as preparation for specific sections of the exam can help students to rationalise what they learn in terms of the assessment itself, adding relevance for them and raising their engagement as important parts of their performance in the test itself.
Harnessing the washback effect
Washback refers to the effects of the test situation, as felt by the students in the lead-up to the assessment itself.
Washback can be both negative (stress levels, lack of confidence, workload, pressure from parents and teachers) and positive (the sense of achievement, motivation, tangible progress, clear framework of language to work within), so it is very important to accentuate the positive washback points when guiding students towards their assessment, focusing on achievements and reducing stress levels where possible.
Reward effort and focus on how far students have come, rather than focusing on how far they have to go, especially with one-size-fits-all exams such as IELTS or TOEFL, where all students, regardless of their level of proficiency, take the same level of exam.
By exploiting as many communicative opportunities as possible, as suggested above, the positive aspects of conversational skills, extended speaking tasks, vocabulary games and discovery-led reading activities can engage students in the range of language points that they develop on their way to their all-important assessments.
Encouraging flexibility with language use
Finally, it is important to know that anyone who can use a range of language and deal with new ideas spontaneously, can pass an exam; however, not everyone who passes the exam can handle the range of communicative abilities required to be an effective language user.
Restricting students to content which appears on an exam is simply not enough to prepare them for their life beyond that exam. As the topics and ideas presented in an assessment are not known before the students sit down in the exam hall, the more flexible they can be in their thinking, expression and language use, the better they will handle the event on the day.
A spontaneous, strategic test-taker who can adapt how they communicate according to the questions in front of them will always outperform a student who has focused on cramming past papers and memorising question types.
Encourage flexibility of language during preparation for assessment by challenging students to think outside the box, paraphrase and justify their ideas, think of alternative points of view and play devil’s advocate.
Rethinking ideas, being open to other viewpoints and rewording ideas in different ways helps students to break out of the culture of giving ‘correct answers’ to prompts and questions.
In performance-based language exams there is rarely a single ‘correct answer’, and acceptable responses to questions are often based on information pieced together from different paragraphs, statements or content knowledge, so practising flexible thinking can help students to widen their application of skills under time pressure.
Conclusion: In summary, most language assessments tend to be seen by students as the end points of periods of study. However, more often than not they represent transitions into further learning situations (the next year of school, entry into high school or university, or a new job).
This developmental view should run into the ways in which students are prepared for assessment: the process of defining key areas of language to focus on, designing open, critical and productive tasks for practice, then relating skills and language clearly to question types on the exam itself can help students to understand and perform well to the specific criteria set out by the designers of any skills-based language examination.
About the author: Tom Garside is the founder of Language Point Teacher Education Ltd., an education development organisation which leads professional development and teacher training activity. He also delivers Trinity CertTESOL courses to English language educators around the world.If you like this article, please share: