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Testing language skills and language knowledge

The success in teaching the English language to great extent depends on the level of focus on the knowledge quality and on the attention paid for preventive inspection of mistakes [10, с. 90]. Long pedagogical experience shows that checking pupils’ knowledge

in the form of short control tasks, conventionally called tests, can be of great use in the process of teaching. We can assuredly say that tests are not only the most effective form of knowledge control but it is also the more objective indicator of pupils’ assimilation of language than usual current and individual checking. Regular testing stimulates the activity and attention of pupils on the lesson, increases their responsibility in making classroom tasks and home tasks.

Testing is certainly not the only way to assess students, but there are many good reasons for including a test in the language course.

  • A test can give the teacher valuable information about where the students are in their learning and can affect what the teacher will cover next. They will help a teacher to decide if her teaching has been effective and help to highlight what needs to be reviewed. Testing can be as much an assessment of the teaching as the learning
  • Tests can be extremely motivating and give students a sense of progress. They can highlight areas for students to work on and tell them what has and hasn't been effective in their learning.
  • Tests can give students a sense of accomplishment as well as information about what they know and what they need to review.
  • Tests can also have a positive effect in that they encourage students to review material covered on the course.
    • Tests are also a learning opportunity after they have been taken. The feedback after a test can be invaluable in helping a student to understand something she couldn't do during the test.

In order to compile a good test it is necessary that the test should be valid, reliable, scorable, economic and administrable. The first criterion is validity. If the test measures what it is intended to measure, it is a valid test. If a test, for example, measures pronunciation and nothing else, it is a valid test of pronunciation.

The second criterion is reliability. If a test yields the same results not once, i.e. if the results are not accidental but they reveal some stability, it is a reliable test. If a test can be scored with case so that the users are able to handle it, the test measures what economy is a practical criterion [3, p.126]. If a test measures what we want it to test in a reasonable time considering the testing situation, it is an economic test. Testing time is precious time. We must test in one hour what has been learned in a month or a year or several years.

The test will be administered if any teacher, not specially trained can handle the conduct of testing with ease and the latter does not require complicated equipment.

The teacher tests the pupil’s command of the target language, that is, his ability to use it in its two forms, oral and written. Therefore, the items of testing should fully correspond to the aims and objectives. They are: 1) aural comprehension (listening), 2) speaking (monologue and dialogue), 3) reading (oral and silent), 4) writing (words, sentences, dictations, written reproductions, etc.).

In our schools oral testing often takes the form of questioning the class or some individuals. The manner in which each pupil reacts to the teacher’s questions shows his readiness for the lesson and his achievement in learning some particular material. This often results in assigning marks to several pupils. Since there are many items of testing as well as pupils in the class the teacher needs special tests to measure his pupils’ achievements. At present the following tests are available: teacher-made tests, ready-made tests (for example, in the Teacher’s Book), and standardized tests (made by the Department of Education). Naturally, teacher-made tests are the best because teacher knows the material his pupils have covered better than anyone else does, that is why he can administer a test which will correspond to his pupils’ capacities. However, in administering tests he should always keep in mind the items of testing, that is, the syllabus requirements for this particular form. [4, p.178].

Great number of tests involves skills in listening comprehension. These may be answering “yes” any questions, choosing answers from multiple-choice items on cards distributed beforehand, etc. They involve tests on spelling. The examples of them are the following tests on spelling of some particular sound:

Pupils listen to the words. Then they are to define whether couples of words are the same or different:

heat-heat, heat-hit, chair-share.

The testing of listening may be administered in two ways depending on pupils’ reaction to the material they hear. A text is presented either by the teacher or on tape. Each pupil is given a set of pictures (3-4) one of which corresponds to the item that he hears. Pupil listens to the text and identifies the picture by raising it (immediate testing) or by putting a mark (a number) in a special place provided for it (delayed testing). A text is presented, preferably on the tape. The class or each pupil is given a definite task before listening. During after-listening stage pupils are asked to do special assignments [2, p.130].

Tests checking oral comprehension are to be held on more complicated language material – sentences, dialogues, whole text. The sentence is read for pupils. And pupils are to find the sentence which is true about the text.

Tapescript: Fred spent his childhood in France.

  1. Fred used to work in France.
  2. Fred lived in France as a boy.
  3. Fred now has his home in France.
  4. Fred has just returned from France.

The analogous test can be conducted as a dialogue.

Testing speaking is the most difficult as the teacher will want to test pronunciation, stress, sustained speaking, use of vocabulary and grammatical structures. The best way to measure the achievements in speaking is by testing each pupil individually. But this is very time-consuming and, although the teacher does his best to question as many pupils as he possibly can, he fails to listen to all, and as a result this major language skill is often not controlled in any way whatsoever. Instead the teacher tests knowledge of words, structures; ability to ask and answer questions in written form, ability to describe a situation or topic suggested. In order to avoid this, the following testing technique may be proposed. Each pupil records his response on the tape. The teacher plays back the tape as he has time and evaluates each pupil’s performance. Contemporary teaching aids make this available. It has been calculated that it takes a pupil 1-1,5 minutes to make a response containing 3-4 sentences. The test must be constructed in such a way that the pupil wouldn’t need a lengthy answer but his response must show his ability to pronounce and intone, use certain vocabulary and grammatical structures, and to demonstrate whether his speech is sustained or not. It will not take the teacher more than half an hour to evaluate the achievement of all his pupils in a given form and get a clear picture of each individual on a given topic. Regular oral tests will increase pupil’s sense of responsibility and desire to master the spoken language [8, p.44]. It is very difficult to make up narrow directed and readable objective tests on such complex skill as speaking.

Testing reading deals with comprehension and speed. The former is more important than the latter. Testing reading may be administered aloud or silently. Each pupil gets a passage, accompanied by a set of questions on cards which can be true-and-false type, multiple-choice, or a type that requires a statement for an answer. In case of reading aloud the test may be administered in the language laboratory with each pupil recording his reading. Subsequent evaluation is carried out in the manner described above for measuring speaking skills. If pupils read silently the teacher collects cards and evaluates every pupil [8, p.21].

Tests on reading differ in the way of checking pupils’ knowledge –ability to read separate words or ability to read and understand the content of the extract.

Testing vocabulary and grammar is carried out indirectly or directly. All the above mentioned tests imply testing vocabulary and grammar since the pupil cannot give a satisfactory answer to any test if he doesn’t know the words and grammar items required. This is indirect testing. However, the teacher may administer direct testing when he proposes a vocabulary test or a grammar test. Tests on checking knowledge of grammar structures are extremely various [7, p. 63]. Among them one can point out the test on making up sentences using separate words. All words are enumerated and pupils on sheets of paper write only sequence of figures, for example 53124, etc. This kind of job makes checking tests easier. Sometimes, pupils are suggested to insert some words (often modal words, particles, gerund, etc.) into the sentences. (The teacher enumerates all positions for inserting in the sentence).

  1. Articles: He was elected … President.

a) a; b) an; c) the; d) 0 ..

  1. Prepositions: The machine consists

…3 main parts.

a) in; b) from; c) of; d) 0 .

  1. Tenses: The train is coming at 5 o’clock.
  2. It’s 5 o’clock now and the train is coming;
  3. The train comes at 5 every day;
  4. The train will come at 5;
  5. The train came at 5.
  6. Voices:He was often laughed at by his friends.
  7. He often laughed with his friends;
  8. His friends often laughed at him; c)He often laughed at his friends;

d) His friends were often laughed at (by


  1. Tail-questions: You are ready, …. ?
  2. isn’t it?b) don’t you?; c) aren’t you?; d) are you?

Tests on checking lexis also have several variants [1, p.165].

    1. the teacher gives pupils several photos or pictures with similar sets of things (animals, plants, family members, etc.) He calls anything in them and pupils raise the appropriate photo or picture. Of course, such kind of test is not very economic because of the necessity to make large number of photos.
    2. at the initial stages, when the vocabu-

lary of pupils is not very large, one can give them a task to define which of 3-4 words can be combined with a key word : “to break”

a)a cap; b) a cup; c) a book; d) a ball..

It goes without saying that this test can be conducted only when pupils know not only the definitions of words, included into the test, but also their combinability.

At more advanced stages pupils can define equivalent words or word combinations in the test:

“He enjoyed the party”.

      1. He joined the party; b) He liked the party; c) He arranged the party.

Eventually, tests in writing as a rule are based on the task that pupils must correct the mistakes in the sentences:

It was raining the hole day. I’ll come in 2 ours.

I like spots and games

Very often tests of multiple choice type are offered:


  1. f; b) ph; c) gh.

Table 1 presents test formats applicable for each of the four language skills [6, p. 35].

Table 1. Test formats for different language skills

Language Skills

Test Formats

Reading skills

Multiple-choice items Open questions

Cloze test

Gap-filling test False/true statement

Listening skills

Multiple-choice items False/true statements Gap-filling tests Dictations

Open questions

Writing skills

Compositions Reproductions Writing stories Writing diaries Filling-in forms Word formation

Sentence transformation Dictations

Speaking skills

Retelling stories Describing pictures Describing people Spotting the differences

All the tests are easy to evaluate and the marks that the teacher assigns are objective because tests measure exactly what the pupil has learnt. Marks are assigned on the basis of the work done in a particular class [5, p.41]. When the teacher administers a test the following scale of marks may be suggested:

“5” – more than 80 % correct answers “4” – from 60 to 79 % correct answers.

“3” – from 40 to 59 % correct answers. “2” – less than 39 % of correct answers.

Other technique of test checking is rather simple: teacher sticks his sheet of paper with correct answers on the sheets of pupils and points out only the cases when they do not match. As it can be seen from the told above, the answers can be in short figure/ letter form. There can be also a peculiar system of results calculation and tests evaluation. The authors make up tests in such a way that the number of points in them was divisible without remainder by ten. In this case one can easily convert the test results in percentage. In order to define which of pupils managed with a test, teacher uses the way of searching the median meaning. For example, group of 7 men made a tests consisting of 20 points. The number of right answers is written in raising order: 10, 13, 14, 15, 15, 18, 19, 19. The fourth and central figure turns out to be the number 15. It is considered the minimal score degree to pass the test. In such a way, in this group two pupils couldn’t do the test and answered correctly only on 10-13 points.

The positive side of such system of work evaluation is that teacher has not fixed and at the same time urgently subjective and indistinct system of marks but the changeable system (for example: A, B, C, D, or 2, 3, 4, 5). The mark of progress of each pupil depends on the results of work of the whole class (group) and, vice versa, every pupil influences on the mark of the class (group). Because before the test the class had taken general training exercises and during the test it has been doing the similar operations, teacher had a detailed picture of his class assimilation of the taken theme [9, p.29].

The shortcomings in marks are twofold:

  1. the lack of clearly defined, generally accepted definitions of what the various marks should mean, as a result the meanings of marks tend to vary from teacher to teacher;
  2. the lack of sufficiently relevant objective as a basis for assigning marks.

The result is marks tend to be unreliable. Many investigators found wide differences on what various marks should mean and the standards that should be followed in assigning them. It still wants it investigators to work out a system of objective foreign language tests for every level of instruction and language skill. Such a system of tests will make valid marking possible. At the present time the procedures for assigning marks are about as good or as weak as the teachers who apply them. Since there is no objective approach to the measuring the achievements of pupils, the teacher relies upon his intuition, the traditions that are observed at school, his personal experience, and other chance factors.



  1. Настольная книга преподавателя иностранного языка. – Минск, 1992.
  2. Heaton J. B Classroom Testing. Longman London1990 – c. 10-20.
  3. Hughes A. Testing for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press 1989. c. 45.
  4. Krasyk N.I. Testing Speaking // ”Иностранные языки в школе”, 1989, #6. – c. 47.
  5. Kunina E.A. Auding. – Moscow, 1995 – p. 130.
  6. Marianne Gelce. Techniques and resources in teaching grammar. / M. Gelce, Murcia Sharon Oxford University press, 1988. – p. 34-54.
  7. Reznic. A grammar of modern English usage. – Moscow, 1997. – p. 64.
  8. Rozenkrantz M.A. Reading in TFL // ”Иностранные языки в школе”, 1988, #5. p. 43.
  9. Soldatov G.A. About marks //”Foreign Languages at school”, 1972, #2. – p. 41.
  10. Viasburg M.L. Requirements to speaking skills/ M.L.Viasburg, A.D. Klimentenko //” Foreign Languages at school” 1972, #3. –p. 43.
  11. www.ets.org.

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