Assessment is a part of the process of education and it determines whether the aims of education are accomplished. Assessment and feedback are essential for helping people learn. As a part of instruction, assessment provides information about the level of understanding students are reaching.
A delicate problem when assessing speaking is whether to concentrate on accuracy or fluency. There are activities when teachers focus on accuracy but more often when they assess a speaking activity, fluency is what they are likely to focus on. One important aspect is overcorrection. It is advisable not to interrupt the flow of the conversation to correct mistakes because students will not be able to continue the conversation and other will be reluctant to speak. A solution to this problem is to correct mistakes once the activity is over.
Testing takes places usually at the beginning – placement test, at the end – achievement test, and during a language course – progress test. On one hand, to include an oral component in each of these tests can complicate the procedure concerning the criteria of practicability and reliability. Setting a speaking test is often difficult because is time-consuming and different testers might have different evaluation criteria.
On the other hand, not including a spoken component in language testing could become a problem, providing an inadequate image of students` proficiency.
It is a challenge for teachers to design and to apply a satisfactory spoken test. The most common are:
1. Interviews – the advantage is that they are easy to set up, students being called out one by one to be interviewed. Interviews are usually formal and this could be a disadvantage because many students underperform in these situations. This problem can be solved by using pictures, pre-selected topics or allowing them a few minutes to prepare their speech. Also, the interviewer can set up a more informal conversational speaking style.
2. Monologues – students can prepare and present a short talk about their favourite sport for example. This is a valid test only if this is a skill students will need in the future for a certain job.
3. Role-plays – students perform a role and the other role can be played by the tester or by another student. Everyday real situations are the best to be used. This type of test is valid if it matches the students’ needs.
4. Collaborative tasks and discussions – students are not required to play a role but to be themselves. The advantage is that students’ interactive skills are best observed in circumstances close to their real life.
What and how to assess?
There are two major ways to assess speaking abilities: the holistic scoring and the analytic scoring. The holistic scoring is used for informal testing of progress. The advantage is that it takes little time but differences in scoring may occur. Analytic scoring is time-consuming and the testers have to take into consideration a variety of factors. This type of scoring is more reliable but the tester could lose sight of the overall picture. The aspects of the task that are taken into consideration when applying an analytic scoring are:
Grammar and vocabulary – on this scale marks are awarded for the degree of control for grammatical forms and the use of appropriate vocabulary.
Discourse management – on this scale students are given marks for the ability to express ideas in a coherent way, to justify opinions, to produce utterances in an appropriate linguistic range.
Pronunciation– refers to the students `ability to produce intelligible utterances with control on phonological features at both utterance and word level. The use of stress and intonation is essential and accents of L1 are acceptable unless communication is not impended.
Interactive communication- refers to the students ‘ability to interact with an interlocutor, to initiate and respond appropriately. Here speed and rhythm are very important and also strategies that maintain or repair interaction.
All these components are important when assessing speaking/oral communication in order to balance accuracy and fluency which are both important in teaching and evaluating speaking. Oral communication involves many aspects of language as listed above and the success of communication depends on the students’ ability to use them.
Chaney, A.L.; Burk, T.L., Teaching Oral Coommunication in Grades K-8, Prentice Hall, Boston, 1998.
Dimbleby, Richard; Burton, Graeme, More Than Words, An Introduction to Communication, Third Edition, Routledge, New York, 2001.
Findlay-Shaw, Michael, Language and Communication, A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, ABC-Clio, Ink, Santa Barbara, California, 1998.
Thornbury, Scott, How to Teach Speaking, Longman, London, 2005.