Adrian Tennant talks about how and when to assess speaking in the classroom, and provides some practical ideas for setting up assessment activities.


In the previous six articles I’ve looked at different aspects of teaching speaking and provided some tasks that cover these. But how do we know how successful our teaching has been and whether the students’ speaking has developed? Well, of course, when we listen to them speaking in the classroom (and outside) we probably get a good idea, but is this enough? And will it be accepted by the students themselves, their parents or boss, or by an external body? So, we need to have some way of assessing our students’ speaking. In this article I’ll take a look at some issues surrounding assessing speaking. 

How do we assess speaking?

The first thing to say is that the way in which you assess speaking should reflect the way you teach it. In other words you need to use the same kinds of activities and tasks during the assessment as you do during the lessons, otherwise you are not assessing what you have taught. Many activities we use in class are perfectly good for the purpose of assessing students, as long as the criteria are clear and the activity fits these. For example, a roleplay can be used as an assessment. i.e.

Student A: You want a ticket to London. You want to know how much it costs.
Student B: You work in a train station selling tickets. A ticket to London costs £15 single, £26 return. You want to know when the person wants to travel.

The criteria for assessing this activity need to include:

  • Use of the correct functional language e.g. I’d like… Can I have…? How much is a ticket...? Do you want a single or return? etc.
  • The correct appropriacy e.g. Can I have… not I want… or I was wondering if… etc.
  • And, of course, the (successful) completion of the task.

What criteria should we use?

The criteria we use will depend on the aim of the activity and what exactly we want to assess. If we are assessing how accurately someone speaks, we need to make sure it is clear to everyone taking part. It’s often useful to use a set of criteria for assessing an activity. For example, turn-taking (in pair or groupwork), appropriacy (in terms of vocabulary and structures used), range of vocabulary and structures (plus whether the range is appropriate), fluency, accuracy and task completion are just some of the criteria that can be used. In many cases these criteria need to be broken down into more meaningful steps, i.e. appropriacy: the student used the type of language you would naturally find in a train station situation; accuracy: questions were constructed properly, prices were given correctly etc.; task completion: student A bought a ticket to London. Student B gave the correct ticket and found out when the other person was travelling, etc.

Should the students know the criteria?

Yes. Unless they know the criteria they won’t know exactly what is being assessed. This may lead to them neglecting something that is important in terms of the assessment. For example, in the train roleplay the emphasis is probably heavily weighed in favour of completing the task and giving the correct information. If the question forms are not perfect but still work successfully, then this may not be so important. However, if a student puts a lot of effort into constructing the questions, but fails to get the correct information then the criteria have not been fulfilled. 

Are there any problems assessing speaking?

One of the main problems of assessing speaking in the classroom is the logistics of listening to sixteen, thirty, forty-five students (or however many you have in your class) within the lesson time. In some cases, assessing speaking is organized in such a way that it is done outside the class/lesson. But, this is far from adequate. Firstly, it means that either students lose valuable lesson time while assessments are carried out with individuals or pairs, or the teacher needs to work outside the normal class times. It also means that assessing speaking will happen very infrequently as it doesn’t become part of the classroom routine. However, this can be avoided if assessment becomes part of most lessons and is done in a systematic way.

How do you set up an assessment activity for speaking?

To set up an assessment activity in the classroom you have two choices. Either you can set the other students a different task while you carry out the assessment or you can integrate it into your lesson and assess just a few students each time. As it’s quite clear how you would organize the first method, let’s take a closer look at the second one.

The best way to do this is to have an assessment record sheet for each student (see the practical ideas section) and, at the start of the lesson tell the students that during the speaking activity you will be assessing some of their performances. You then choose one or two pairs or groups to be assessed during that lesson and make sure you keep a record. That way, you can check to see who you have assessed and when and ensure that over the course of a few weeks everyone is assessed. Now, of course, one of the problems is that not all the students are being assessed on the same task, but if you ensure that over the course of a term/course all the students are assessed at least once or twice on a task type/set of criteria then this method can work quite well.

What should I do after the assessment?

The main thing to remember is that the purpose of teaching is not the assessment. The assessment is simply a way of checking how successful the teaching is and what work still needs to be done. Therefore, assessment should feed back into what you teach. If students are having problems with a particular aspect of speaking, or with some grammar or vocabulary needed for the speaking activity, then this informs your teaching, enabling you to teach these things again. Assessment should also aim to be a positive experience, so focusing on what students can do – not just on what they can’t do – and showing students that they are learning things will help increase motivation.

Some practical ideas

1. A personal record sheet

Name: Ming-Lee
Dates: 6/3 20/3 3/4 17/4
Task: Describing
a picture
Has difficulty communicating        
Communicates ok, but lots of pauses        
Communicates well        
Task isn't completed successfully        
Task achieved, but with some problems        
Task achieved        
Language not appropriate to the situation        
Language ok, but needs work        
Appropriate language used for the situation        


2. ‘Can do’ statements

Usually when we speak it is in order to do something or to communicate information. Therefore, one way of assessing students, or getting them to assess themselves is by using a series of ‘Can do’ statements. Students then tick (or you do) when they can successfully do something, or you can have a set of standards from ‘can’t do’, ‘do, but not well, ‘do ok’ all the way up to ‘can do’. Here’s a few for a typical low-level class.

  • Can introduce myself
  • Can ask other people about their name, age and nationality
  • Can talk about my family
  • Can say what I have and don’t have
  • Can make polite requests using ‘Can youplease
  • Can ask for a table and order food in a restaurant