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Concourse 2

Assessing speaking skills


This guide assumes:

  1. That the best way to test speaking ability is to get the learners to speak.
  2. What we need to assess is communicative ability in spoken language.

These are obvious starting points.  We can, of course, also test some underlying skills discretely.  For example, we can test learners' abilities to produce the sounds of English adequately or to recognise turn-taking signals and so on.  Here, however, we will set out an assessment procedure which includes, rather than separates out, those abilities.


The aims of the teaching programme

All assessment starts (or should start) from a consideration of the aims of instruction.
For example, if the (or one) aim of a language course is to enable the learners to do well in the oral interaction part of a Cambridge First Certificate examination, then this will be very influential in terms of the types of assessment tasks we use and the way in which we measure performance.
If, on the other hand, our aim is to enable the learners to transact and interact successfully in an English-speaking environment (such as a social or work environment) then we will set different kinds of assessment tasks and measure performance against different criteria.

There are, however, some underlying principles in the area which are generally applicable regardless of the aims of the teaching programme.


Three basic tenets

  1. We have to use assessment tasks which properly reflect the kinds of speaking the learners will need to be able to do in 'the real world'.
  2. We need to design tasks which accurately show the learners' ability.
  3. We need to have a reliable way to score the learners' performance.

These three factors are to do with ensuring reliability and validity.  For more on those two concepts, see the guide to testing, assessment and evaluation.  The rest of this guide assumes basic familiarity with the content of that guide.
Fulfilling all three criteria adequately requires a little care.


Getting the full picture

The first step is to set out exactly what speaking skills are the object of the teaching programme.  To do this, we have to answer these 3 questions (which come with a few examples of the kinds of answers we might get):

  1. What sorts of settings will our learners need to be able to act in?
    • Informal social chatting (interaction)
    • Formal or semi-formal meetings at work (transaction)
    • Academic settings and seminars (transaction)
    • Service encounters?
    • Giving formal presentations in a work or academic setting?
  2. What functions do the learners need to be able to perform?
    • Expressing: thanks, needs, opinions, attitude, apology, complaints, justifications etc.?
    • Narrating sequences of events?
    • Explaining: processes, reasons, procedures?
    • Providing: information, directions, instructions, advice etc.?
    • Eliciting: information, directions, clarification, help, permission, comment etc.?
  3. What topics will our learners have to be familiar with?
    • Social matters?
    • Dealing with officialdom?
    • Service providers?
    • Entertainment and leisure?
    • Travel arrangements?
    • Personal experiences?
    • The media?
    • Medical matters?
    • Specific study subjects?
    • Specific occupational areas?

When we have the answers, we can go on to considering the best sorts of tasks to set.  Without adequate answers, it is pointless to proceed at all.


A general speaking-skills check-list

It may be the case that you find yourself teaching General English rather than English for Specific Purposes (also known as ENAP [English for No Apparent Purpose]).  If that is so, you need a general-purpose check-list of abilities at various levels against which to assess your learners' abilities to speak.  Here's one:

The abilities and text types are, of course, cumulative.  At, e.g., B2 level, a learner should be able to handle everything from A1 to B1 already.


Designing tasks

Now we know what sorts of thing we want to assess, the purposes of the speaking, the functions the learners need to be able to perform and the topics they need to deal with, we can get on and design some assessment procedures.
Again, there are some generic guidelines for all tasks, whatever the answers to the 3 questions are.
If you have followed the guide to testing, assessment and evaluation (see above), you will know that this is something of a balancing act because there are three main issues to contend with:

  1. Reliability:
    A reliable test is one which will produce the same result if it is administered again (and again).  In other words, it is not affected by the learner' mood, level of tiredness, attitude etc.
    This is a challenging area in the case of assessing speaking.  We need to gather as much data as we can but asking learners to speak lengthily, especially at lower levels of ability will result in tiredness and a fall-off in performance.  Speaking in a foreign language is tiring and difficult.  Adding the stress of assessment to it makes matters worse.
    To ensure that a speaking test is reliable, then, we need to set as many short tasks as we can over a period of days or even weeks targeted at assessing the abilities we have identified.
    The type of marking that is required also plays a role here: the more subjective the marking is, the less reliable will be the test.  If the assessor is required to perform multiple functions (interlocutor, assessor, participant etc.) then reliability of judgement is compromised.
  2. Validity:
    Three questions here:
    1. does the test measure what we say it measures?
      For example, if we set out to test someone's ability to participate in a discussion for academic purposes, do the test items we use actually test that ability or something else?
    2. does the test contain a relevant and representative sample of what it is testing?
      For example, if we are testing someone's ability to take part in everyday interactions, does the task we set get them to deploy the sorts of language they actually need to do that?
    3. do we have enough tasks to target all the skills we want to assess?
      For example, if we want to test the ability to summarise information orally, do we have a task focused explicitly and discretely on that skill?
  3. Practicality:
    Against the two main factors, we have to balance practicality.
    It may be advisable to set as many different tasks as possible to ensure reliability and to try to measure as many of the skills as possible in the same assessment procedure to ensure validity but in the real world, time is often limited and concentration spans are not infinite.
    Practicality applies to both learners and assessors:
    1. for learners, the issue is often one of test fatigue.
      Too many tests over too short a time may result in learners losing commitment to the process.
      On shorter courses, in particular, testing too much can be perceived as a waste of learning time.
    2. for the assessors, too many time-consuming tests which need careful assessment and concentration may put an impractical load on time and resources.  Assessors may become tired and unreliable.


Examples may help

Say we have a short (150-hour) course for motivated B2-level learners who will need to operate comfortably in an English-speaking culture where they will live and work.
They need to interact with colleagues and be members of the society.
We have around three hours of the course earmarked for this assessment.
What sorts of items could we include, bearing mind reliability, validity and practicality?
Evaluate the following ideas, based on these principles and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

Interview each learner separately, touching on general social interaction and on work-specific topics

eye open
  1. With a large group, this can be a very time-consuming process.  To be effective, the interview should probably be between 15 and 30 minutes long.
  2. Interviews tend to be one sided with the interviewer asking and the subject responding.  It is very difficult to measure the learners' ability to take control of or initiate interactions.
  3. The setting is artificial so any estimation of the speaker's ability to identify and respond appropriately to real-life levels of formality is unlikely to be reliable.

On the positive side:

  1. If all we need is a general estimation of the learners' communicative abilities, this is a familiar and easily set up procedure.
  2. Imaginative use of variations in settings can make the assessment more valid and reliable.

Set up a series of role plays in which candidates have to interact with peers to:

  1. Plan a meeting on a particular topic and set an agenda.
  2. Chair a meeting.
  3. Discuss a set of, say, three alternative procedures.
eye open
  1. The task is work-based only and may not cover all the speaking skills that learners will need outside working time
  2. Roles are unequal and may require different input from the participants so they are not all being assessed fairly.
  3. The tasks will require careful and time-consuming planning.
  4. Quieter, shyer or less imaginative learners will say less.
  5. There may actually be too much data easily to handle.

On the positive side:

  1. The tasks can be accurately targeted at real needs.
  2. The assessor need not participate and is therefore in a better position to judge performance.
Record a number of spoken stimuli to which all learners must respond on the basis of data they are given and record their answers for later evaluation.  For example:
  1. A typical service encounter beginning "Good morning, how can I help?" (the subject has a written prompt along the lines of You are coming to meet Mr Smith but need to leave a message saying the train is delayed and you will be 10 minutes late.).
  2. "Have you done the plan for the new office area?" (the learner has a written prompt to say a) it is almost ready, b) you are waiting for a colleague to finish her part and c) it will be ready by the end of the week.)
eye open
  1. This is very inflexible and lacks any ability to follow up on the learners' responses.
  2. It's quite time-consuming to prepare.
  3. It requires the technology to be in place.

On the positive side:

  1. It maintains good reliability because it means all learners get exactly the same test.
  2. It is recorded so can be double or triple marked for reliability.
  3. Carefully designed with needs in mind, it can be a very valid test.
  4. The test can be broken down into short sections and done whenever the opportunity arises.

Designing anything in life involves striking a balance between competing priorities.

The kind of evaluative thinking that you have used here can be applied to any kind of assessment procedure, regardless of topic, level and task types.


Other speaking assessment task types

It may be that your circumstances allow for very simple speaking tasks such as those requiring the learners to respond spontaneously to a set of prepared initiations.  This kind of test can be done in the classroom or a language laboratory or even on the telephone.
Those are all legitimate tasks providing the task type and content suits the purposes of assessment.
There are other ways.
No list can be complete, but here are some other ideas for other ways to set writing tasks for assessment purposes.  The content of any task will of course, depend on all the factors discussed so far.

  1. Form filling tasks
    form filling
    The assessor / interlocutor plays the role of helpful clerk eliciting the data needed to fill in a form on the telephone or face to face.
    Such tasks are almost infinitely variable in terms of the level of detail which can be demanded and useful for assessing the learners' ability to provide extra information or require clarification.
  2. Compare and contrast tasks
    house 1 house 2
    Presenting people with two different but similar pictures can be a useful way of testing the ability to compare and contrast things in speaking.  Such tasks also test the ability to describe what you see (although that is arguably not a commonly required, real-world skill).
  3. Charts and tables
    Getting people orally to describe or summarise data from charts and tables, identify trends and locate significant factors orally is a useful way to test some higher-level speaking abilities.  It is actually quite challenging and we need to give the subject adequate preparation time.
  4. Simple graphics and picture sequences
    Images of events are useful ways of testing the ability to describe and/or speculate in speaking.
    Series of related pictures can be used to assess the ability to produce a convincing recount and obscure or odd-angle pictures can elicit speculative language.
  5. How to ... stimuli
    how to
    Requiring people to explain how something is done or how something happens is a good way to test the ability to sequence an instruction or to explain and describe processes.  They need, of course, to have the data to start with and that's not always easy to supply.  Diagrams of processes (as in operating manuals) can be supplied.
  6. Role plays
    role play
    Are almost infinitely variable in terms of topics, functions required and levels of formality used.  They can be very finely targeted.
    Role plays can be conducted between two learners or with the assessor or with a third person who has no assessment role at all.  The problem with this kind of assessment is that a learner's performance may well be influenced by the performance of the partner and a number of cultural factors may play a significant part.  From certain cultures, for example, young females may not wish to appear more knowledgeable than older males and so on.
  7. Prepared presentations
    These are poor ways to test speaking ability in general because too many variables (audience size, personality, nervousness etc.) come into play but if it is a skill the learners will need in English, then it a clear and direct way of testing the ability to do it.


Measuring outcomes

If you can't measure it, you can't improve it
Peter Drucker

Unless you have a clear way of measuring outcomes, all the work on assessment task design is wasted.  Ways of getting clean data are discussed in the guide to assessment in general.  For speaking in particular, however, there are some conventional approaches which fall into two broad categories.

holistic assessment
This involves a simple scale, perhaps from 1 to 10, on which the product from each learner is placed on an impression of how well they achieved the task(s).
With a small group and with assessors who have a clear idea of what they are looking for, it can be quick, reasonably accurate and efficient.
There are obvious drawbacks in that judgements can be subjective and speaking tests are not usually recorded (so double or even triple marking cannot be used).  It lacks clear criteria against which learners' performances are being measured.
analytic assessment
Involves breaking down the tasks and being specific about the criteria you are using to judge success.
Large-scale examining boards use this approach as a matter of course.  For example, the current assessment criteria for the IELTS examination stretch across 10 bands of ability and fall into 4 assessment criteria groups.  These are:
Fluency and coherence
Lexical resource
Grammatical range and accuracy
The detail is available from:
Here's an example of one level of achievement (Band 7):
Band Fluency and coherence Lexical resource Structural resource  Pronunciation
  • speaks at length without noticeable effort or loss of coherence
  • may demonstrate language related hesitation at times, or some repetition and/or self-correction
  • uses a range of connectives and discourse markers with some flexibility
  • uses vocabulary resource flexibly to discuss a variety of topics
  • uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices
  • uses paraphrase effectively
  • uses a range of complex structures with some flexibility
  • frequently produces error-free sentences, though some grammatical mistakes persist
  • shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8

No, nobody know the difference between what the writers of this call connectives and what they call discourse markers.  The latter term should be used to refer to how speakers manage spoken discourse but the term is so overused and so loosely used that it has had most of the meaning bleached out of it.
Taking a ready-made set of criteria from a public examination body like this can be very helpful.  They are written by experts and have been trialled and re-trialled numerous times.  However, you are probably not setting an examination, you are constructing an achievement test of some kind so the criteria categories and what they contain may only be marginally relevant to you (unless, of course, you are preparing learners actually to take the IELTS examination).
The other obvious issue with descriptors like these is their sheer imprecision.  The language is laden with terms which need to be subjectively interpreted such as some awareness, some, but not all, may demonstrate, some flexibility, less common etc.  Very careful training and standardisation of assessors need to be done to avoid too much variation in interpretation and this is, of course, what most examination bodies do.
Other sets of criteria from sources with different concerns may include, for example, accent, grammar, vocabulary, fluency, style, effect on the listener, task achievement, appropriacy and so on.
Each of the category areas can, of course, be weighted (by, for example, doubling the scores for some areas or multiplying by another factor) to reflect what you and the learners see as the most important skills.
The categories you need will be determined by the aims of your teaching programme and no set of off-the-peg criteria will suit all purposes.

The summary


Related guides
assessing reading for the guide
assessing listening for the guide
assessing writing for the guide
assessment in general for the general guide
the in-service skills index for associated guides