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Using Audiotapes to Assess Student Speech

Robert W. Long III


  • Key Words: Speaking, Testing and Evaluation
  • Learner English Level: False beginner to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: High school to Adult
  • Preparation Time: Varies
  • Activity Time: Varies

As most EFL educators in Japan know, large classes are more the rule than the exception. These large classes pose serious problems in the development and evaluation of real communicative abilities in students. Even when teachers rely on pair-work or various task-based assignments to develop some communicative ability, large classes make it difficult to give students immediate feedback regarding their accuracy and to help them identify alternate modes of expression. The purpose of this article is to discuss how to use audiotapes to measure and develop communicative abilities. Audiotaped speech provides a safe medium for students who do not have the interactive competency that other students might exhibit. Moreover, I have found that if students are aware that they will be evaluated through audiotapes, they usually are more engaged and eager when doing daily class activities.

Audiotapes can be used to measure a student's control over specific isolated functions, functional sequences, speech acts, and conversational routines. Measuring a student's fluency, pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary use, and grammatical accuracy is possible in four different ways: (a) evaluating specific language aspects and speech acts, (b) evaluating controlled or open conversational routines, (c) evaluating the language used to accomplish a task-based assignment, and (d) oral testing.

Evaluating Specific Language Aspects

Introducing oneself, asking directions, giving thanks, and saying good-bye are just some of the language functions that can be done easily by two or more students at the novice level. At lower levels, several functions and cued responses should be used, while at higher levels, students should attempt various kinds of speech acts, from routine descriptions and explanations to reporting about people and products. With these higher level students, I have used pictures from Life magazine or newspaper photos and captions as a means for students to describe and clarify information. Specifically, in pairs, one student tries to provide basic information from a photo regarding a person, place, action, time, and reason; while the other student (who is unable to see the picture) tries to clarify information through who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. These magazine or newspaper pictures and short, related captions often can be arranged along basic themes and tied to the topic of the lesson. Similarly, students can also ask clarifying questions about company faxes, reports, and memos. (Reporting on a current event, festival, company, or club is also a viable alternative. As students progress, they can provide more in-depth bibliographic information on these events, organizations, and placesムeven explaining a specific technical process, business problem, or cultural aspect.

Examining Speech through Conversational Routines

Having students engage in various 'controlled'-and creative conversational routines is another avenue of assessing their language abilities. Usually when beginning a class, I would use conversational maps (see Figure 1) which outline how a particular exchange should proceed.

Conversational Map 1. Introductions, bibliographical information, and invitation Probable time: 5 to 10 minutes

  • I. Introduce yourself to each student
  • II. Give background information about yourself A. your major B. your hometown C. your hobbies D. your family E. your friends F. a problem
  • III. Ask a question
  • IV. Make an invitation
  • V. Accept or reject an invitation
  • VI. Say good-bye

Over the school year, these maps become more generalized and less controlled; the purpose is to lead students from tightly organized conversational routines to more open and realistic exchanges in which they have to improvise and create interactions with language. Having students act out various role plays or conversations from textbooks gives teachers a means of assessing their pronunciation, intonation, and fluency. In order to elicit some creative language, I have had students imagine how these textbook dialogues can be extended: students write out various scenarios and read them aloud onto tape. To generate more interactive exchanges, students can pick a topic and discuss it with their partner on tape. The recording is passed to another pair of students who continue the discussion, either agreeing or disagreeing with what was said or adding other insights, comments, statements, or questions. This activity can be, to a degree, a measure of some interactive competency if the students are willing to allow themselves to engage in a spirited dialogue and make mistakes.

Evaluating Speech Through Task-Based Assignments

Task-based assignments provide interesting possibilities for assessing a student's language. Some ideas for projects are to have students translate information, discuss and write advertisements, warranties, and directions for various products. Likewise, students can survey English majors at nearby colleges about their opinions on their schooling, American or English culture, or their difficulties in learning English. Students can tape interviews with older students in which they elicit advice on how to study: this information can be discussed on audiotapes. At advanced levels students go to various businesses which use English and interview various company managers on things they would like students to learn in preparation for working at their company; this information is then summarized on tapes. Another task-based project involves students making oral dialogue journals in which students respond on tape to questions, statements, problems, current eventsムeither selected by a student or by the teacher, who then responds. The tape can change hands several times before being evaluated.


Finally, formal assessments can be done through audiotapes. Teachers can opt to do testing similar to the ETS Test of Spoken English (TSE - the commercial version is called SPEAK) in which students answer short biographical questions, discuss what happens in a series of pictures, label and describe objects in a picture, finish sentence completions, and read aloud a schedule or brochure. Vocabulary can be tested in various ways, such as sentence completions, analogies, cued responses in a dialogue, and story telling.


For evaluation purposes, a recorded speech sample should be approximately ten to fifteen minutes long to give students ample opportunity to demonstrate their fluency, their use and range of vocabulary, and their accuracy regarding pronunciation and grammar. There are numerous ways to evaluate student work through audiotapes. One option is a discrete assessment that gives students a detailed record of their communicative strengths and weaknesses (see Appendix A). The teacher assesses the student's ability to engage in certain types of speech acts, and also makes comments on the student's pronunciation and intonation (including the student's ability to pause at correct places and to adjust speed); vocabulary (range, phrasing, style, use); fluency; and grammatical control. If an in-depth holistic assessment is not possible, the teacher can give an effort grade and provide feedback to students on common errors that turned up in the class, giving a class profile of common strengths and weaknesses. An effort grade (see Appendix B) is a subjective assessment of the student time and effort spent making the tape; it is not concerned, necessarily, with communicative accuracy. In this case, the teacher determines whether or not the students attempted to do all of the required items to the best of their ability; brief comments and suggestions are then made.

A third means of evaluating audiotapes is through longitudinal assessments (see Appendix C). These are perhaps the most difficult to do since they require teachers to keep track of student strengths and weakness and on student improvement from one tape to another. While the focus can be on the student's ability to gain more control over the language or improve communicative accuracy, teachers can examine the rate of improvement, identify problem areas, and give more in-depth suggestions for improvement. Again, this evaluation is problematic because it requires teachers to have more detailed records of the student, to know the student better, and to have tapes which elicit longer and more varied speech. In contrast, limited assessments do provide teachers with an easy means of evaluation. The teacher listens for only one or two things, such as pronunciation, grammatical control, or usage of vocabulary, and then either provides in-depth comments or checks off from a list particular strengths and weaknesses.


It needs to be said that using audiotapes will not be a panacea for all the problems found in large oral communication classes: evaluating such audiotapes thoroughly can be a labor-intensive and time-consuming task. This can be partly solved by having students turn tapes in at different times throughout the semester so that not all students are handing their tapes in at the same time. However, for students who are reluctant, even hostile, to speak English, audio tapes can be one sure means of getting past the silence while minimizing any possible embarrassment on the part of the student. To summarize, audiotaped tasks, tests, and journals can be a valuable pedagogical tool, one that can produce, if done consistently, substantive student progress. Most important, since students can listen to themselves and receive specific feedback on a number of language aspects, audiotapes can be used as a means of enhancing student awareness of their own true language abilities.


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