Skills: assessing speaking skills
Teachers are often asked to evaluate learner progress during courses, maybe by preparing progress tests. It can seem straightforward enough to test grammar or vocabulary with pen and paper tests – but if our students’ work includes speaking – then it also seems necessary to assess their speaking skills. Teachers often feel unsure as to how they could do this. Here are some ideas.
Criteria rather than marks
What’s the aim of a progress test? Often it’s to give encouragement that something is being done well - or to point out areas where a learner’s not achieving as much as they could. With this kind of aim, giving 'marks' may not be the most effective way to assess. An interesting alternative option for progress tests is to base them around assessing if learners are successful when compared against some 'can do' criteria statements (i.e. statements listing things “I can do”), such as “I can describe what’s happening in a picture of town streets.” or “I can take part in a discussion and explain my point of view clearly and politely.” To prepare a criteria list think of about ten kinds of speaking that students have worked on over the course and turn them into criteria.
Too many students!
A frequent problem for teachers is when there are so many learners in one class that it seems to make it unrealistic to assess speaking. With a list of criteria (such as those above) it now becomes considerably more straightforward to assess even a large group. Explain to your class what you will be doing, then, the next three or four times you set speaking tasks (i.e. where learners work in pairs or groups), walk around class with a list of names, listening in to various groups and noting successes, keeping track of individual 'can do’s'. Extend your assessment over a few lessons; keep listening and adjusting your evaluation over a variety of tasks.
What are possible speaking tasks for assessment? Well, almost anything you do in normal class work – e.g. narrating a picture story; role-plays; pair work information gap exchanges; discussions etc. If you have a smaller class and enough time then a “three learners with one teacher” activity is a very good way to assess, i.e. setting a task that gets the three learners to interact together while you watch and evaluate.
Although fear of bad marks can sometimes be motivating, it’s surprising to find the amount of power that students feel when assessing themselves. It can be a real awareness-raising activity. Distribute a list of criteria and ask students to first write a short line comparing themselves against each criterion (in English or in their own language) – a reflective view rather than just a 'yes' or 'no'. Encourage 'guilt-free' honest reflection. After the writing stage, learners can meet up in small groups and talk through their thoughts, explaining why they wrote what they did.