Getting Started with Conversation Tests

Writer(s): 
Tiernan L. Tensai

Dear TLT,

I teach several conversation classes and they are going okay, but I’m at a loss for how to assess my students’ speaking skills. I’ve tried various writing-based formats, but I’m not satisfied with them. I’ve heard that it’s possible to test speaking skills directly, but I’m not sure how to go about it. Do you have any advice for what I could do? 

Curious in Kanazawa

Dear Curious,

Thanks a lot for your letter. This is a topic we’re very interested in too, so we’ll do our best to help you get started. First of all, how to conduct and assess speaking skills is a very big subject—one that we can’t possibly do justice here in this short column. However, we can share with you some ideas that have worked well for us that will hopefully get you pointed in the right direction. We’ll also point out a few of the many very good books written on the subject in case you are interested in acquiring more detailed information. In addition, always remember that Google is your friend— doing a search for How do I conduct an EFL speaking test? will bring up a wealth of useful resources. 

We notice in your letter that you are unsatisfied with traditional writing-based tests for assessing communication ability. There is a clear reason for this. These sorts of tests do not require students to speak in order to pass! You spend your time encouraging students to talk and express themselves in class, and then for the test, they have to use other skills (such as reading and writing) in order to pass it. In this situation, the test is not supporting the sorts of skills you want your students to improve, such as speaking and listening. In testing parlance, this is called “negative washback.” Washback is the effect a test has on teaching and learning, and it can be either positive or negative (Bailey, 1998). Speaking tests, on the other hand, are more likely to promote positive washback, especially if they are well designed and conducted. However, and here is the rub, while speaking tests may be more beneficial to developing communicative ability, they are also much less practical for the teacher to prepare and carry out. There are a number of logistical matters that need attending to, such as test format, when and where to conduct it, grading procedures, and giving feedback. The number of variables you need to consider may seem overwhelming, but it’s not impossible. If you’re willing to invest a bit of time and energy, you’ll open up a whole new area of learning and growth, both for you and your students. 

Okay, enough with the preamble! Let’s get to a few test format ideas that have worked well for us. 

Interview Tests

A traditional form of speaking test is conducted as an interview between you and a student. Of course, you could also interview a pair, or if you have a large class, small groups of three or four students. One way to conduct these interviews is during class. Just set up a few chairs in a corner of the room, give students a bit of time to warm up, then call up each individual or pair one at a time to talk with you, apart from the rest of the group. Beforehand, students can practice, and afterwards, be sure to have something for them to do, such as a worksheet or other exercise. On the other hand, if you don’t want to use class time for tests, then you could conduct these interviews at another time and place of your choosing. 

There are different ways to go about the interview. One idea is to have students perform a memorized conversation. This is especially useful with lower-level learners who have a hard time talking. This is not “real” conversation, but at least they are getting benefit out of the work they put in as they prepare and practice. If you want to add a bit of spontaneity, ask them a question or two after the prepared bit is done. For a bigger challenge, ask them random questions and see how they respond. You could also lay back and let them lead the conversation. Depending on how you conduct your interviews, the difficulty level can be tweaked to meet the needs of your students.  

When you mark the tests, you’ll need some sort of rubric. Decide ahead of time what criterion are most important, then create a sheet that will help you quickly check off scores and give feedback. For example, you could look at some or all of the following aspects of conversation and give a score of 1 to 5 for each; we don’t recommend using too many, as the more you track, the more complicated the marking becomes. 

  • Fluency: How smoothly someone speaks; presence or absence of noticeable pauses is one way to measure it. 
  • Accuracy: How accurately do students speak? Are the mistakes major or minor? 
  • Intonation: What is the quality of the students’ voices? Do they sound like flat, droning robots, or do they sound positive and friendly? 
  • Content/creativity: To what degree did students use key words, phrases, or taught grammatical constructions? Did they go beyond the basic requirements, or did they show some creative spark?
  • Body language: Did the students make eye contact? Were they smiling? How about their posture? 
  • Attitude: This is more of a holistic measurement that can refer to one’s overall demeanor. 
  • Participation: If interviewing a small group of students, how well does each person take part?

These are only a few of the many criteria you could grade your students on. Check out the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines website (www.actfl.org) for a thorough list that includes guidelines for assessing all four language skills. Which you choose will depend on what you think your students need to develop most. Feel free to experiment with different criterion and skill descriptors. Over time you’ll find that students will make more effort in a particular area if they know they are being graded on it. So, if you have a really quiet class, you may want to choose intonation as a key criteria. If your students have trouble speaking accurately, make sure that’s something they are graded on. 

Finally, you may find that engaging in conversation with your students and marking them at the same time is a very tricky thing to do. We therefore highly recommend recording the tests and marking them later on. This will take more time on your part, but it will greatly increase the reliability of the results. 

Recording, Transcribing, and Noticing Tests

Speaking of recording… since most students have smartphones these days, that means they have the ability to record their conversations via free built-in recording apps. Instead of interviewing each pair one at a time, have students record a short conversation (3-5 minutes) and then transcribe it for homework. A pedagogically sound task in its own right, this activity will force students to listen to themselves and their partner carefully. Once the transcript is completed, you can follow up with a number of awareness raising activities. For example, students could search for mistakes, look for instances of taught language, reflect on any L1 usage, and imagine how they could improve next time. At the end of the year, students could compare their performances with those earlier in the year and self-evaluate their progress. 

If you conduct a test in this way, here are a few tips. First of all, you’ll need to spend some time showing students how you want them to transcribe their recordings. In addition, to ensure greater compliance, include transcript completion as part of the grade. If many students are late in completing these transcripts, it would make things more difficult. Alternatively, if your class is not too big, you could consider doing the transcripts yourself. Believe it or not, there are some advantages to this. The transcripts would be more accurate and help you give better grades and feedback. You could also simply avoid the issue of non-compliance altogether. Of course this is a lot of extra work for you! But if you have a small enough group, it may be something to try. Recording and transcribing tests is not for everyone and every situation, but they have the potential to really boost positive washback to very high levels, so they are worth considering.

Project-Based Tests

If you have a large class, you may want to consider a project-based approach. One idea here is to have students create short videos and post them to a private, password-protected YouTube account. There are different ways to go about this, but here is one method that has worked well for us: Create a YouTube channel and show the students a demo video, perhaps one from a previous class that you have gotten permission from former students to share. This lets everyone know what you expect. Give the students a topic to talk about on video and show them how to film and upload the video to the private channel. Students can use their smartphones if you don’t have any cameras to spare. Sample topics include self-introductions, talking about your family, hometown, or house—whatever you happen to be learning. The students create one video for each topic throughout the semester. For the final exam, they could do one more video that summarizes three of the topics. Watch and assess the videos on your own time using a rubric you’ve clearly explained to your students (this is really important, as they should clearly understand how they’ll be marked). Having some sort of feedback sheet can expedite the feedback process for you. 

Another type of project-based exam is the presentation test. Here, the students, in pairs or small groups, prepare a short skit based on material you have covered in class. You could give them some time to prepare in the prior class, then have them perform their skits in front of everyone in the next class. In this way, students would gain the benefit of building confidence through their public performance, much in the same way that public speeches and presentations do. Students can also learn vicariously through watching their classmates. If public performances are too much, have students perform their skits for you privately at a time and place of your choosing. 

Final Thoughts

In this short column, we’ve covered a few ideas for conducting speaking tests. Compared with written exams, they are less practical and involve more work on your part. However, as you can see, the tradeoff is increased validity—your tests will now positively reinforce the very skills you want your students to build. If you decide to give these ideas a try, we suggest you do more reading on the topic and try them out slowly with a small class that you feel comfortable teaching. Take notes as you go and learn from your efforts, step by step. Over time, your skill in preparing, managing, and marking speaking tests will increase, and the process will become easier the more you do it. In the end, conducting speaking tests is an excellent way to develop your teaching craft and provide your students with even more learning opportunities. Good luck!

Resources

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Retrieved from <http://www.actfl.org> 

Bailey, K. (1998). Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions. Boston: Heinle. 

Bachman, L., & Palmer, A. (2010). Language testing in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luoma, S. (2004). Assessing speaking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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