Assessing Speaking and Writing for Exam Success

These productive skills which require students to ‘perform’ can be the most challenging to assess because in many ways the assessment is always subjective. When we listen or read the students’ responses, we can wonder ‘What exactly is good pronunciation?’ or ‘What is a good answer to the task?’. This means we often focus on if our students have made errors on some feature of grammar which seems easier and more practical to assess. The problem is that this shifts our students away from the communicative skills we are trying to teach. So let’s look at some of the issues in assessing speaking and listening and how we can do this better for ourselves and for our students.

Firstly, let’s look at what our students might struggle with and how we can help them.

Challenges for students in doing speaking and writing tasks:

  1. They think they personally are being judged.
  2. They feel ‘put on the spot’ because they know time is limited.
  3. They are not sure exactly what they are being judged on.
  4. Sometimes the tasks look very ‘free’ or open so it can be hard to know what to say or write.
  5. Sometimes they don’t understand the task, i.e. what they hear or read so this makes them panic.

How can we help?

  1. It’s important for teachers to prioritize communication over accurate language. Make sure that when you give your students a communicative task that you praise them and focus on whether or not they have communicated rather than worrying about the detail of accurate grammar or vocabulary. You can correct this at other times. This helps them to see it’s the communicative proposition that is important, even if they make a mistake. For example, before giving them a task to ask questions, ask them to think which questions are important for communication such as understanding what their classmate did last weekend.

2. Make your learners aware of strategies they know and use in their first language. For example, they know how to make an arrangement with a friend in their first language, so ask them to transfer this knowledge to English by thinking about what the important things are to decide when they talk to someone about this.

3. Make sure you give students an opportunity to collaborate on their response before you ask them to do the task individually. This gives them a safe space to explore and think about their ideas. They also learn from each other, so it builds their confidence in doing the tasks. For example, in a ‘spot the difference’ task, ask them to prepare by talking about the differences with a classmate.

4. Encourage students to check their work, especially written work. Give them a little checklist to work through and ask them to think about what they got wrong or how they could improve their work. Make sure you give them a chance to repeat the task and improve it so they have a successful model they have completed. This helps them become autonomous for their own learning and builds their confidence.

Using assessment criteria in class

Part of helping students to feel more confident and perform better in an assessment of their productive skills is making sure they understand what is expected of them. You can do this by making sure they fully understand the criteria they will be assessed on. For both speaking and writing, this tends to fall into three categories:

A Task fulfillment: did they answer the question?

B Coherence: did what they say or write make sense?

C Intelligibility: can we understand what they have said or written?

You can familiarise them with the assessment criteria by using some class activities:

A  Write or record some examples of completed tasks which are a mix of answering and not answering the question. Ask the students to judge which ones do answer the question and why or why not.

Help students understand which words are important for making sense. Often it is not a concrete noun or verb but making sure they have got the pronouns or linking words right. Usually, this is more important for coherence than, for example, if they make a mistake in a verb ending or spelling. You can give them an example and ask them to decide and show them how to check their work so that they have included the keywords for understanding correctly, e.g. ‘he’ not ‘she’, plural and singular reference words (these/this) and so on.

C There are many varieties of spoken English, so usually it is more important that we teach students to focus on how fast they talk or getting the right stress in a word or sentence rather than the smaller details. Help them to understand that, for example, slowing down makes their speech more intelligible. In writing, it is important that an examiner can read their writing. Help them to focus on making their writing clear even if it takes them a bit longer.

If they become judges themselves they will have a much better understanding of how their performance in an exam is being judged.

Tips for giving feedback

One important way to progress learning is to give learners meaningful feedback that focuses on forward learning, not just on how they have performed.

Use these tips to make feedback more of a concrete and useful activity:

  • Agree on points for feedback based on objectives to de-personalize
  • Timing – when do you give feedback? Speaking vs Writing
  • Focused – single feature/point because of cognitive load for learners
  • Encourage analysis/understanding – why is something wrong or limited?
  • Use exemplars – ask them for feedback on samples
  • Give a single task to improve; do again and give more feedback
  • Vary feedback: use whole class, group & individual

Click here to watch the recording of Elaine’s recent webinar, Preparing Young Learners for Exam Success: Assessing Speaking and Writing.




Author: Elaine Boyd

Elaine has been working in language assessment for over 30 years working for a range of international exam boards. She has written several exam coursebooks for primary and secondary learners for leading international publishers. She has also developed courses in assessment literacy and formative assessment for teachers and teacher trainers. She conducts research into issues in classroom assessment and feedback and has a particular focus on primary learners. Elaine is a series consultant for Look , a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning.

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