Speaking Test Ideas for ESL Students

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From bane to beautiful, Lindsay Herron reflects on various speaking test approaches.

Don't be this teacher.

I love doing speaking tests. For some of the other teachers I’ve spoken with here in Korea, at universities or otherwise, speaking tests are a bane. I can understand that. Speaking tests can be time-consuming and exhausting (for teachers and students alike!); and despite our best efforts and careful rubrics, there’s still an element of subjectivity.

In spite of this, though, I love talking to my students one-on-one, making a connection—however forced—for five minutes at a time, getting little glimpses into their lives and personalities that might not have been evident in the classroom. But every semester, after listening intently for so long that I find my eyes glazing and my calibration slipping, I think to myself, there’s got to be a better way to do this.

Removing the teacher from the equation

Ideally, I’d like to structure my exam so the teacher is removed as much as possible, allowing students to talk to each other naturally and freely(-ish). Less focus on the teacher would more closely emulate what students have been practicing during class (i.e., small-group and pair discussions); could decrease pressure on the students, since their attention would be focused on each other rather than the teacher; and could actually prove fun for the students. I’ve heard about several approaches that merit consideration.

Using small group discussions

I’ve toyed with the idea of a small-group approach. One of my colleagues does his speaking test during a regular class, with students given topics to discuss in small groups while he moves around the classroom, listens in, and gives each student a mark. I like this in theory; but I worry that whatever student I’m focusing on will get flustered knowing I’m nearby, won’t have much to say about that particular topic, or will simply be overwhelmed by more vocal group members. It seems like too brief a chance for students—especially the more reticent ones—to prove their mettle. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, my ears aren’t as sharp as they used to be; in the din of group conversations, I’d have to creep pretty close to hear well enough to give a grade.

A cumulative approach

Another teacher I know eschews formal speaking tests, instead marking students during discussions in each class and giving a cumulative grade. This is another idea I like in theory, though it raises similar concerns. I’m also not sure how it would work logistically for me; during in-class speaking activities, I’m normally so absorbed in listening for errors to put up on the board for correction, I can’t imagine marking students at the same time. I’d also be worried that I’d get students’ names mixed up, especially at the beginning of the semester. Still, the idea of a cumulative grade is appealing—and I’m sure my students would appreciate the low-pressure marking.

Role-play or discussions in pairs

I think I’d really like to try a pair approach, such as one of those presented by Maria Pinto at a Jeollanam-do KOTESOL meeting a few years ago. I was extremely intrigued by the approaches she discussed, most notably what she termed the debating exam and the semi-planned exam. In the former, two students are given a topic to discuss—for example, “Gwangju’s the best place to live in Korea”—and are given a very short time to prepare their arguments.

In the latter approach, two students are given a role-play situation or information-gap task to complete; for example, Student 1 has a card describing her boyfriend (name, age, hobbies, job, etc.), and Student 2 is given the task of finding out about Student 1’s boyfriend. Having experienced a role-play exam first-hand at the conclusion of a Korean language course, I can attest that this style of exam can be very fun for the test-takers.

The appeal of a personal connection

When all is said and done, though, I’ll probably stick with my usual one-on-one speaking tests. It’s selfish, really; I like this approach because it gives me an excuse to have in-depth conversations with students. You never know what might emerge. Once, a student told me about seeing her sister get hit by a car and die right in front of her. Another student told me about a parent’s suicide.

I’ve learned about my students’ experiences with blind dates and “film cuts” (blackouts from drinking); their concerns about their future careers as elementary school teachers; secret wishes to transfer to a different university, curtailed by parents in favor of an ostensibly more secure career as a teacher; secret boyfriends, hidden from parents or peers; and their enthusiasm for their families, hometowns, or favorite pastimes. What emerges in this five-minute period is often true, personal communication—a moment of connection that can resonate long after an exam. And that, after all, is what teachers all strive for.

Do you have more ideas or questions on how to give speaking tests? Share them in the forum.

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