Testing pronunciation


Testing Pronunciation





by Augustin Simo Bobda


( from http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol31/no3/p18.htm )


This article is motivated by the author’s observation that the evaluation of students’ pronunciation is not given the place it deserves in many EFL and ESL classes in Cameroon and probably elsewhere. It is supported by the fact that the purpose of testing pronunciation is not only to evaluate knowledge and award grades, but also, and probably more importantly, to motivate students to be sensitive to this aspect of English. Given that the motivation of many students for learning English is instrumental rather than integrative, pronunciation tends to be neglected by many learners as long as they know they will not be tested on it.

Obviously, pronunciation is tested globally in different types of conversational exchange, interview, reading aloud, etc., that go on in the classroom. What seems to be insufficient is the testing of accuracy-that is, testing to assess the learner’s management of specific features, segmental or suprasegmental. This insufficiency is due to two main causes. First, many teachers do not consider it useful to test specific features. This attitude is based on the belief that the mastery of specific features, taken individually, does not matter much in real-life situations where the context always (?) provides the cue for the learner to interpret what he hears (Heaton 1988:64) or to make himself understood even if the ideal quality of phonemes is not reached.

It is possible for people to produce practically all the correct sounds but still be unable to communicate their ideas appropriately and effectively. On the other hand, people can make numerous errors in both phonology and syntax and yet succeed in expressing themselves fairly clearly. (Heaton 1988:88)

The second, and surely more important, cause is the particular difficulties involved in testing oral skills. One of the greatest problems in oral testing is administration. It is often impossible to manage the large number of students to be tested. Testing equipment, like laboratories or tape recorders, is scarce in many Third World countries where English is taught. Even when such material is available, testing may be rendered impossible by the lack of even more basic facilities like electricity.

A further difficulty in oral testing arises when English is part of a school-leaving or promotion examination for an entire country. In most countries offering such examinations (e.g., Cameroon), candidates over a large area have to respond, often in writing, to the same paper. This exacerbates the problem of logistics.

Taking segmental phonemes and word stress as illustrations, this article explores some ways of testing specific features of English pronunciation, both as a teaching activity and as part of an examination. The ideal way of testing pronunciation is to actually listen to the learner. But since this is not always possible or suitable, the alternatives discussed below can be used for testing segments and word stress. Throughout the discussion, the illustrations are based on pronunciation problems of Cameroonians.


Given that speaking and listening skills are interrelated, dictation, an old exercise, remains one of the ways of testing the learner’s pronunciation. This testing method is based on the assumption that, most often, if the learner has a deviant pronunciation of a word, he will not understand it when it is read with a different pronunciation. For example, if a student’s pronunciation of sword is [swOd], he/she will not understand and therefore not spell it correctly if it is read (RP) [sOd].

A dictation exercise may appear in different forms. First, it may consist of a whole passage incorporating target words to be tested. It may also consist of a set of individual words incorporating the segmental or stress features being tested. A third interesting type of dictation consists in a cloze test: the testee is given a text from which target words have been removed and replaced by blanks; the examiner reads the full passage and the testee fills in the blanks with the words he has heard. One precaution to take here is that the context should be as neutral as possible; a context that is too supportive will elicit the correct word even if the student’s pronunciation of it is faulty.

This type of cloze test has recently been used by Talom (1990) with Upper Six Anglophone students of the Government Bilingual High School, Yaounde. Using a British reader and a Cameroonian, for comparison, the author obtained fascinating results. For example, the British reader’s pronunciation of climbing as [klaImI˜] was often understood and spelt as *climate, [fjU@l] (fuel) was understood as *few, [|pEz@nt] (peasant) as *persons, *patients, *prisons, [|lEp@ds] (leopards) as *lepers, *labourers, *letters, *left but, *locust, [mE@] (mayor) as *man, [pEsl] (pestle) as *pencil, *parcel, *person, [|b{rI@] (barrier) as *barrack, *garage, [|kvItId] (coveted) as *cavity, *carvity, *quality, and so on. The fact that students’ spelling problems were caused by their deviant pronunciation was confirmed by the fact that parallel groups of students submitted to a Cameroonian reader encountered virtually no problems.

Test Segments

In addition to the various forms of dictation analysed above, there are many listening activities (and others that could involve the interpretation of gestures and pictures) designed to test the learner’s ability to discriminate phonemes or groups of phonemes. Following are a few examples:

1. Same or Different? The testees listen to a pair of words or pairs of sentences and indicate whether they are the same or different; e.g.,

a. suck - sock

b. but - bought

c. seat - seat

d. hut - hurt

e. Is that my pen? Is that my pan?

f. He was severely beaten by his wife. He was severely bitten by his wife.

The exercise can also be done by showing the testees a set of pictures corresponding to words that elicit contrasting sounds; one of the words is spoken by the examiner or played on tape.

2. a or b (or c)? A multitude of sound-discrimination tests can be grouped under what can be broadly termed an a or b (or c) test. For example, the testees are shown pictures eliciting the following words:

1. a. sock     b.     sack     c. suck

2. a. cat     b. cut     c. cart

3. a. court     b. caught     c. cart

The examiner says, for example:

1. sack

2. cat

3. court

The testee writes the letter corresponding to the most appropriate word; i.e., 1. b; 2. a; 3. a.

The exercise, in which the list can be reduced to minimal pairs, can be done without pictures. But pictures are useful because they make the class more lively. This type of exercise is probably one of the simplest sound-discrimination tests.

3. Which Definition? A word is read twice, and several different definitions, including one that is correct for the word, are given; the testees are asked to select the correct definition for the word heard; e.g.,

1. bought - bought

a. a vehicle that moves in the sea
b. past participle of buy
c. coordinating conjunction

2. hid - hid
a. not to like [hate?]
b. placed where it cannot be seen 
c. knock

This type of exercise has the extra advantage that it tests vocabulary at the same time.

4. Which Ones Are the Same? The testees listen to a list of words and mark the ones that are the same.

1. a. pot     b. pot     c. port

2. a. bid     b. bit     c. bid

5. Fill the Gap. The testees listen to a sentence and select from a set of words the one they hear; e.g.,

1. Did you see the --- you were looking for?

a. people     b. pupi1     c. purple

2. He died at the age of --- .

a. forty     b. fourteen     c. thirty

Using colour cards

Colour cards are particularly useful in testing the many phonological alternations that exist in English; e.g., [s, z, Iz]; [t, d, Id]; [˜g, ˜], [aIn, aIt; In, It], [S, Z], [ks, gz], etc. After giving each testee a set of cards of different colours corresponding to the various alternates, the tester pronounces or writes forms and asks the students to show the corresponding card. He may start by pronouncing some forms, a fairly simple exercise if the lesson has been properly taught; e.g.,

[s], [z] or [Iz]?
books, schools, cats, churches, students’, plays, James’s

[t], [d] or [Id]?
wanted, added, jumped, robbed, increased, showed, carved

[ng] or [n]?
finger, singer, hanging, prolongation, prolonging

[aIn, aIt], or [In, It]?
Catherine, Muscovite, acolyte, finite,
masculine, infinite, valentine

[S] or [Z]?
version, invasion, conclusion, Persian, division, coercion, tension, casual, measure, mansion

[ks] or [gz]?
maximum, taxi, exist, Texas, exhaust, taxonomy

Tests other than listening comprehension

Turning now from listening exercises to those specifically testing the learner’s ability to perceive and identify segments, several writing tests not combining listening are available. They include the controversial phonetic transcription exercises, finding odd members out of a set, regrouping, matching, and many other miscellaneous types.

1. Phonetic Transcription. It may be useful to observe that many EFL and ESL textbooks on the syllabus in Cameroon use phonetic transcriptions; e.g., Grant et al.’s (1977) Secondary English Project, Atanga et al.’s (1987) Intensive English, and even more systematically, Cripwell and Linsel’s (1990) Go for English.

Opinion is divided among teachers as to the relevance and/or possibility of teaching or testing phonetic transcription in secondary school. The reluctance of many teachers is due to the fact that they themselves cannot cope with the exercise.

I have personally noticed that when secondary-school pupils have a good introduction to phonetic transcriptions, many of them acquire the skill quickly and even enjoy the exercise in the long run. My suggestion is that, for want of a wholesale introduction to phonetic transcription, students at least be taught to attempt partial transcription.

For example, students can be gradually introduced to the sounds of English and eventually be made to transcribe specific sounds in a word. They can, then, attempt such tasks as “Transcribe the sounds represented by the underlined letters”: journey, peasant, favourite, penal, southern.

2. Finding an Odd Member. The testees are given sets of words in which one word has a sound that differs from the others. The question can be put thus: In each of the following sets of words, three words have the same sound and one does not. Write down the number and the letter of the one that does not.

1. a. dull     b. bull     c. wool     d. pull

2. a. warn     b. dawn     c. scorn     d. barn

3. a. pour     b. poor     c. sure     d. tour

3. Regrouping. The testees are given a list of words and asked to regroup the words that have the same sound (it can be specified whether the common sound is a vowel or a consonant):

let, say, gene, quay, meat, rate, maid, says, said

4. Matching. The testees are asked to find words that have the same sound as a given word. This exercise is similar to the one above. But here, the words illustrating the key sounds are suggested and the testee is asked to find from the list words that have the same sound; e.g., Find from the list below words that have the same sound as the following:

cut, pot, push

tin, than, thatch

List of words:

swamp, buffalo, cook, one, swallow, bosom, country, squander, bush

thing, Thames, either, although, three, Mathilda, clothes, Theresa, cloth

Matching can also be done by finding the words that rhyme with a given word; e.g., Pick out from the following list words that rhyme with cat, lone, tore, poor, here, pair, respectively:

Joan, plait, bat, mere, tour, clear, rare, pour, chair, share, roar, known, sure

5. Miscellaneous Ways of Testing Pronunciation. These include asking testees to circle silent letters (silent letters abound in English words, and the importance of such an exercise cannot be overemphasised); e.g., Circle letters that are not pronounced in the following words:

aren’t, weren’t, sword, debt, bombing Greenwich, Parliament, evening

Note that it is better to have students circle rather than underline the letters; this avoids hesitant students cheating by drawing a line under two letters.

It should be noted that the foregoing exercises require a thorough knowledge of English pronunciation, yet they do not necessitate the use of phonetic symbols.

Testing Word Stress

It does not seem relevant here to dwell on listening comprehension as a method of testing word stress; the method can be used in about the same way as for testing segments. There are other methods of evaluation that are particularly useful for testing knowledge of stress.

One possible method derives from the very nature of English stress. In native English speech, stress is so strong that it is generally accompanied by a movement of some part of the body (head, eye, hand, etc.). To exploit this characteristic of English stress, one first teaching exercise may consist in asking the testees to identify the stress of a word by a bodily movement, like tapping, shaking one’s fist, moving one’s head, etc.










In writing, the testees may be asked to use one of the conventional ways of marking stress; e.g., Put the stress symbol before the stressed syllable or on the stressed vowel.

|salad or sálad

suc|cess or succéss

pre|paratory or prepáratory

The testees can also be asked to use less conventional methods, like underlining, making a circle below the stressed syllable (see Hubbard et al. 1983:215), circling the stressed syllable, capitalising, etc.

The disadvantage of capitalisation is, first of all, that it is likely to cause bad spelling habits in the learner. It is also inadequate when the syllable receiving stress consists of a capital vowel, as in |Agatha. The shortcoming of underlining is that, as seen above, in a serious test situation, a learner who does not want to commit himself will put the line between two syllables if he is not quite sure of the answers; e.g., develop, Agatha, etc. To forestall cheating, therefore, circling remains the most appropriate unconventional method of testing word stress.


The above discussion hopefully convinces the EFL/ESL teacher that pronunciation can be tested in various ways. It can even be tested in various end-of-term, promotion, and public examinations organised in Cameroon and elsewhere, like the BEPC (Brevet d’Etudes du Premier Cycle), Baccalauréat, and GCE Ordinary Level, where the required uniformity among all the testees can be reached without special logistic support. I suggest that to the usual sections on Grammar and Vocabulary, Reading Comprehension, Essay, etc., be added a section called Pronunciation, using the hints suggested above. Some of the hints are quite simple; e.g., for segments-matching, finding an odd member, regrouping, circling silent letters, etc.; for stress-circling, underlining the stressed syllable, etc.


Atanga, A. S., B. O. Oluikpe, T. Y. Obah and M. K. Okole. 1987. Intensive English for secondary schools, Books 1, 2 and 3. Bamenda: Africana.

Cripwell, K. and J. Linsel. 1990. Go for English. London: Macmillan.

Grant, N., D. O. Olagoke and K. R. Southern. 1977. Secondary English project. Essex: Longman.

Heaton, J. B. 1988. Writing English language tests. London: Longman.

Hubbard, P., H. Jones, B. Thornton and R. Wheeler. 1983. A training course for TEFL. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Talom, P. 1990. The intelligibility of some RP forms in Cameroon. Unpublished post graduate dissertation, Ecole Normale Supérieure, University of Yaounde.


( from http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Celik-EnglishSpeech.html )

Testing Some Suprasegmental Features of English Speech

Mehmet Celik
mcelik [at] hun.edu.tr
CELIK, Mehmet. Hacettepe University (Ankara, Turkey)

Testing Listening Stress and Tones

Listening skills in English require an ability to identify stressed syllables, tonic stress in an utterance, and tones. While the testing of the identification of syllables can be done on individual and unrelated words, identification of tonic stress and tones are more appropriately tested on relatively well defined contexts.

Identifying Word Stress

Whether the testees have the ability to identify word stress can be tested by having them listen to tape-recorded list of words. The teacher can have the option of supplying testees with the written form of words. In either case, the test sheet can have squares to represent the number of syllables for the testee to place a tick in. It is best to begin with two syllable words.

In three or more syllable words, the testees below the intermediate level of proficiency may only be asked to identify the primary stress. The words selected for testing can be taken from everyday language.

Identifying Tonic Stress

The ability to identify tonic stress in an English utterance is quite important in order to grasp the true force of the message. Depending on where it occurs, the utterance reflects emphasis, contrast and opposition, and new information. Individual utterances are not good enough for testing purposes because they are not contextualised and sufficient to motivate the testees. Therefore, an appropriate context, e.g. a dialogue, should be drawn'.

First, the testees should be informed in advance of all the steps they are to follow in the test . The testees can first be given a dialogue, text, etc. to read. Second, they can be instructed to listen to it on a tape- or video-recorder. (In the absence of these facilities, teacher can act it out.) In this listening activity, the teacher has the option of letting the testees follow the written script they earlier read.

Third, the testees can be asked to identify the tonic stress in each utterance. This can be done in several ways: by underlining the word that has the tonic stress on the written dialogue or text, by writing the word in the absence of the written form, and so on.

Fourth, the testees can be asked to differentiate among the already identified tonic stresses in relation to tonic stress types: emphatic, contrastive, and so on. They may indicate each type of tonic stress respectively on a piece of paper by using certain notations such as using capital letters. For instance, T for unmarked tonic stress, E for emphatic stress, C for contrastive stress, and N for new information stress.

Identifying Tones

First, a dialogue or a text having different but preferably the most frequently occurring tones in daily conversations in English can be given to the testees to read, taking notice of the punctuation marks for each sentence. Second, they are asked to listen to it. Third, they should be informed that this time they have to assign a tone type to each utterance on a piece of paper by using appropriate arrows, by other simpler notations so that it will not take the testee to lose so much time in moving from one utterance to the next. Further, turn takings in dialogues may be indicated on the sheet using (A) for speaker A and (B) for speaker B, etc.


In testing listening skills, written tests can introduce the testee to the context of the test material, and as such it triggers a better performance by the testee on the actual listening performance. For listening testing, an audio tape (or video-tape if necessary for visual purposes) can be used. Where these facilities are not available, the tester himself/herself can read the test material. Appropriate notations, that is, ones that do not hinder the movement of the testee from one testing item to the next, should be devised. Rather than individual sentences or utterances, compact and meaningful contexts should be selected for testing listening skills communicatively.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 8, August 1999

( from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kitao-TestingListening.html )

Testing Listening

S. Kathleen, Kitao Doshisha Women's College (Kyoto, Japan)
s.kitao [at] lancaster.ac.uk

Kenji Kitao, Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan)
k.kitao [at] lancaster.ac.uk

Testing listening involves a variety of skills. At the lowest level, it involves discrimination among sounds, discrimination among intonation and stress patterns, and comprehension of short and long listening texts. While the first two are part of listening, they are, of course, not sufficient.

Testing Phoneme Discrimination

Sounds are sometimes difficult to discriminate in a language other than one's native language, especially if the sounds are not distinguished in the native language. There are several ways to test phoneme discrimination, that is, ability to tell the difference between different sounds. One way to test phoneme discrimination is to have the testees look at a picture and listen to four words and decide which word is the object in the picture. The words chosen as alternatives should be close to the correct word. However, it is often difficult to find common enough words with similar sounds, and if unfamiliar words are used, they will not make good alternatives. Alternatively, the testees could be presented with four pictures and be asked to choose the picture that matches the word that they hear. Another possibility is to give testees three words and ask them to indicate which two are the same. Finally, testees can listen to a spoken sentence and be asked to identify which one of four similar words were used in the sentence.

Items with full sentences have the drawback that testees can make use of not just phoneme discrimination but also knowledge of grammar and lexical items. If one of the words that the alternatives does not fit grammatically or semantically in the sentence, then testees who realize that have an advantage.

This type of discrimination item is one that can be used for diagnostic purposes to see whether students have particular problems with distinguishing between phonemes. However, it does not give the teacher any information about the testees' ability to comprehend spoken English.

Discriminating Stress and Intonation

The ability to recognize stress can be tested by having testees listen to a sentence that they also have in front of them. Testees are instructed to indicate the word that carries the main stress of the sentence. While recognizing stress patterns is useful in English, the problem with this type of test is that it lacks a context. Testees need to show that they can recognize the difference between "John is going today" and "John is going today," but they do not need to show that they understand that there is a difference in the meaning of the two sentence or what the difference is.

Ability to understand the meaning of difference in intonation can be tested by having the testees listen to a statement and choose from three interpretations of the statement. For example, testees might be given the statement "Vera is a wonderful musician" and be asked to decide whether the speaker is making a straightforward statement, a sarcastic statement, or a question. Since the context is neutral, however, it is sometimes difficult to avoid ambiguity. In real communication, listeners make use of their background knowledge, the context, etc., as well as the intonation to help them interpret the communicative meaning of an utterance.

Understanding Sentences and Dialogues

A teacher can also test the students' understanding of individual sentences and dialogues. In the simplest form, this type of item consists of a single sentence which testees listen to and four written statements from which they choose the one closest in meaning to the original spoken sentence. For example:

I had hoped to visit you while I was in New York.

A. I was in New York but did not visit you.
B. I will be in New York and hope to visit you.
C. I visited you in New York and hope to again.
D. I am in New York and would like to visit you.

Another type of item is one in which the testees listen to an utterance and choose from among four responses the most appropriate response. In that case, the testees are not being asked directly what the meaning of the utterance is. Rather they are being asked to show that they know what it means by showing that they recognize an appropriate response. This tests both the testees' listening ability and their knowledge of appropriate second pair parts of adjacency pairs.

An example of this type of item is as follows.

Spoken: Would you mind if I visited you next time I came to New York?

A. Yes, of course. I'd love to visit New York.
B. No, I don't really think that much of New York.
C. Yes, I would. You can come any time.
D. No, not at all. I'd really love to have you.

(At a slightly higher level, both the first statement and the responses can be spoken, but in that case, it might be better to have only three responses, since it would be difficult to keep all four responses in mind.)

In this example, the testees need to know that "Would you mind if I..." is a form used for asking permission, and that a positive response begins with "no (I don't mind)." Because this type of item requires two different types of information, there is a certain amount of controversy about it. Some theorists argue that it is not a good item type, because it requires these two types of knowledge. Testees could possibly understand the utterance perfectly well but not know how to respond to it. Also, since the utterances are presented in isolation and out of context, the situation is not realistic. However, this type of item can be useful if these limitations are kept in mind. It is a more communicative type of task than many listening tasks, so it may have beneficial backwash effects, and it is relatively easy to administer.

Tasks Using Visual Materials

Matching and True/False Tasks

Some types of tasks make use of visual materials along with the spoken material to test listening. The simplest form of this task is to present testees with a picture or other visual information (for example, a chart, graph, etc.) along with spoken true/false statements. Testees look at the visual and decide if the statements are true or false. An alternative is to present testees with a series of similar pictures and to have them match the pictures with spoken sentences describing them. Similarly, the testees can listen to a short dialogue, rather than just a statement, and decide which of the pictures matches the dialogue.

The advantage of using visual materials in this way is that they can be used to test listening alone without involving other skills very much (if the tester considers that an advantage)--though it is impossible to entirely eliminate the use of other skills. However, they do not reflect the sorts of listening done in the real world.

Map Tasks

Another way to use visual materials in testing listening is to use maps. One activity involves having testees listen to directions for how to get somewhere and follow along on the map. They respond by drawing their route or indicating where they would be at the end of the directions. Another possibility is to have testees listen to a conversation referring to various locations on the map and having the testees identify the locations.

Drawing Tasks

Testees can also do drawing tasks according to instructions. For example, they can be given a simple line drawing and be asked to complete it according to certain instructions. The testees can be presented with a diagram of a room with the bed represented by a rectangle and be asked to add a table, a bookcase, a door, etc., in certain locations in the room. It is important to keep such activities simple so that the drawing task itself does not demand too much of testees. The activity is more interesting if it can be done as part of a simple story rather than as a list of statements, though this may depend on the level of the testees. In addition, the students should have a chance to try out this type of activity before having to do it as part of a test.

Tasks Involving Talks and Lectures

For students who will be using English in schools where it is the medium of instruction, there will be situations where they need to listen to lectures or talks in English and take notes and/or answer questions on the lecture or talk. Therefore, listening tests can involve listening to formal or informal talks.

One way of using talks in listening tests is to have the testees listen to the talk and then fill in the blanks in a written summary of the talk. The words chosen from blanks should be ones that the testees cannot figure out from the context of the summary, without listening to the talk, but they should also be ones that are related to the main idea of the talk, so that filling in the blanks does not require remembering small details of the talk.

Another way of doing this involves giving testees questions to answer as they listen to the talk. These questions can be short answer/completion, multiple choice, or true/false. The difficulty with using short answer or completion questions is that they require the testees to both read and write while they are listening, something that can be difficult even for native speakers. Multiple choice questions may require a lot of reading, something that may also be a problem. True/false questions may be the best type for this type of task, since they require relatively little reading compared to multiple choice questions and relatively little writing compared to short answer/completion questions. Also, true/false questions can also have a "no information available" option, meaning that the information required to answer the question is not included in the talk. This decreases the amount of guessing and reduces the element of chance.

Another type of task that can be used is a chart that the testees fill in while listening to the talk. Answers in some of the blanks in the chart may be filled in for the testees. Testees should be given the chart in advance of hearing the talk, and be given time to familiarize themselves with it and make sure they understand what is expected of them.

Finally, testees can be allowed to take notes while listening to the talk, and then use the notes to answer questions after the talk is over. Depending on the length and complexity of the talk, testees might be given a list of the major topics included in the talk in order to help them in taking notes.


There are a number of ways to test listening, but, particularly when testees' listening proficiency gets more advanced, testing listening becomes more complicated. It becomes more difficult to separate listening from other skills, and combining skills can put great demands on the testee. In addition, some ways of testing listening do not reflect real-world listening tasks. In choosing tasks for listening, the teacher should be aware of these problems.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 7, July 1996


(from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kitao-Testing.html )

Testing Communicative Competence

S. Kathleen, Kitao Doshisha Women's College (Kyoto, Japan)
s.kitao [at] lancaster.ac.uk
Kenji Kitao, Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan)
k.kitao [at] lancaster.ac.uk

Testing language has traditionally taken the form of testing knowledge about language, usually the testing of knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. However, there is much more to being able to use language than knowledge about it. Dell Hymes proposed the concept of communicative competence. He argued that a speaker can be able to produce grammatical sentences that are completely inappropriate. In communicative competence, he included not only the ability to form correct sentences but to use them at appropriate times. Since Hymes proposed the idea in the early 1970s, it has been expanded considerably, and various types of competencies have been proposed. However, the basic idea of communicative competence remains the ability to use language appropriately, both receptively and productively, in real situations.

The Communicative Approach to Testing

What Communicative Language Tests Measure

Communicative language tests are intended to be a measure of how the testees are able to use language in real life situations. In testing productive skills, emphasis is placed on appropriateness rather than on ability to form grammatically correct sentences. In testing receptive skills, emphasis is placed on understanding the communicative intent of the speaker or writer rather than on picking out specific details. And, in fact, the two are often combined in communicative testing, so that the testee must both comprehend and respond in real time. In real life, the different skills are not often used entirely in isolation. Students in a class may listen to a lecture, but they later need to use information from the lecture in a paper. In taking part in a group discussion, they need to use both listening and speaking skills. Even reading a book for pleasure may be followed by recommending it to a friend and telling the friend why you liked it.

The "communicativeness" of a test might be seen as being on a continuum. Few tests are completely communicative; many tests have some element of communicativeness. For example, a test in which testees listen to an utterance on a tape and then choose from among three choices the most appropriate response is more communicative than one in which the testees answer a question about the meaning of the utterance. However, it is less communicative than one in which the testees are face- to-face with the interlocutor (rather than listening to a tape) and are required to produce an appropriate response.


Communicative tests are often very context-specific. A test for testees who are going to British universities as students would be very different from one for testees who are going to their company's branch office in the United States. If at all possible, a communicative language test should be based on a description of the language that the testees need to use. Though communicative testing is not limited to English for Specific Purposes situations, the test should reflect the communicative situation in which the testees are likely to find themselves. In cases where the testees do not have a specific purpose, the language that they are tested on can be directed toward general social situations where they might be in a position to use English.

This basic assumption influences the tasks chosen to test language in communicative situations. A communicative test of listening, then, would test not whether the testee could understand what the utterance, "Would you mind putting the groceries away before you leave" means, but place it in a context and see if the testee can respond appropriately to it.

If students are going to be tested over communicative tasks in an achievement test situation, it is necessary that they be prepared for that kind of test, that is, that the course material cover the sorts of tasks they are being asked to perform. For example, you cannot expect testees to correctly perform such functions as requests and apologies appropriately and evaluate them on it if they have been studying from a structural syllabus. Similarly, if they have not been studying writing business letters, you cannot expect them to write a business letter for a test.

Tests intended to test communicative language are judged, then, on the extent to which they simulate real life communicative situations rather than on how reliable the results are. In fact, there is an almost inevitable loss of reliability as a result of the loss of control in a communicative testing situation. If, for example, a test is intended to test the ability to participate in a group discussion for students who are going to a British university, it is impossible to control what the other participants in the discussion will say, so not every testee will be observed in the same situation, which would be ideal for test reliability. However, according to the basic assumptions of communicative language testing, this is compensated for by the realism of the situation.


There is necessarily a subjective element to the evaluation of communicative tests. Real life situations don't always have objectively right or wrong answers, and so band scales need to be developed to evaluate the results. Each band has a description of the quality (and sometimes quantity) of the receptive or productive performance of the testee.

Examples of Communicative Test Tasks


Information gap. An information gap activity is one in which two or more testees work together, though it is possible for a confederate of the examiner rather than a testee to take one of the parts. Each testee is given certain information but also lacks some necessary information. The task requires the testees to ask for and give information. The task should provide a context in which it is logical for the testees to be sharing information.

The following is an example of an information gap activity.

Student A

You are planning to buy a tape recorder. You don't want to spend more than about 80 pounds, but you think that a tape recorder that costs less than 50 pounds is probably not of good quality. You definitely want a tape recorder with auto reverse, and one with a radio built in would be nice. You have investigated three models of tape recorder and your friend has investigated three models. Get the information from him/her and share your information. You should start the conversation and make the final decision, but you must get his/her opinion, too.

(information about three kinds of tape recorders)

Student B

Your friend is planning to buy a tape recorder, and each of you investigated three types of tape recorder. You think it is best to get a small, light tape recorder. Share your information with your friend, and find out about the three tape recorders that your friend investigated. Let him/her begin the conversation and make the final decision, but don't hesitate to express your opinion.

(information about three kinds of tape recorders)

This kind of task would be evaluated using a system of band scales. The band scales would emphasize the testee's ability to give and receive information, express and elicit opinions, etc. If its intention were communicative, it would probably not emphasize pronunciation, grammatical correctness, etc., except to the extent that these might interfere with communication. The examiner should be an observer and not take part in the activity, since it is difficult to both take part in the activity and evaluate it. Also, the activity should be tape recorded, if possible, so that it could be evaluated later and it does not have to be evaluated in real time.

Role Play. In a role play, the testee is given a situation to play out with another person. The testee is given in advance information about what his/her role is, what specific functions he/she needs to carry out, etc. A role play task would be similar to the above information gap activity, except that it would not involve an information gap. Usually the examiner or a confederate takes one part of the role play.

The following is an example of a role play activity.


You missed class yesterday. Go to the teacher's office and apologize for having missed the class. Ask for the handout from the class. Find out what the homework was.


You are a teacher. A student who missed your class yesterday comes to your office. Accept her/his apology, but emphasize the importance of attending classes. You do not have any extra handouts from the class, so suggest that she/he copy one from a friend. Tell her/him what the homework was.

Again, if the intention of this test were to test communicative language, the testee would be assessed on his/her ability to carry out the functions (apologizing, requesting, asking for information, responding to a suggestion, etc.) required by the role.

Testing Reading and Writing

Some tests combine reading and writing in communicative situations. Testees can be given a task in which they are presented with instructions to write a letter, memo, summary, etc., answering certain questions, based on information that they are given.

Letter writing. In many situations, testees might have to write business letters, letters asking for information, etc.

The following is an example of such a task.

Your boss has received a letter from a customer complaining about problems with a coffee maker that he bought six months ago. Your boss has instructed you to check the company policy on returns and repairs and reply to the letter. Read the letter from the customer and the statement of the company policy about returns and repairs below and write a formal business letter to the customer.

(the customer's complaint letter; the company policy)

The letter would be evaluated using a band scale, based on compliance with formal letter writing layout, the content of the letter, inclusion of correct and relevant information, etc.

Summarizing. Testees might be given a long passage--for example, 400 words--and be asked to summarize the main points in less than 100 words. To make this task communicative, the testees should be given realistic reasons for doing such a task. For example, the longer text might be an article that their boss would like to have summarized so that he/she can incorporate the main points into a talk.

The summary would be evaluated, based on the inclusion of the main points of the longer text.

Testing Listening and Writing/Note Taking

Listening and writing may also be tested in combination. In this case, testees are given a listening text and they are instructed to write down certain information from the text. Again, although this is not interactive, it should somehow simulate a situation where information would be written down from a spoken text.

An example of such a test is as follows.

You and two friends would like to see a movie. You call the local multiplex theater. Listen to their recording and fill in the missing information in the chart so that you can discuss it with your friends later.

Theater Number        Movie           Starting Times
  1                 Air Head
  2                                  4:00, 6:00, 8:00
  3                                  4:35, 6:45, 8:55
  4                 Off Track


Communicative language tests are those which make an effort to test language in a way that reflects the way that language is used in real communication. It is, of course, not always possible to make language tests communicative, but it may often be possible to give them communicative elements. This can have beneficial backwash effects. If students are encouraged to study for more communicative tasks, this can only have a positive effect on their language learning.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 5, May 1996


( from http://teflchina.org/teach/speak/ )

Testing speaking -- Roger Chrisman, 30 Apr 1999

Often in order to get by in China, as in life, we compromise. For example, how do you grade Oral English students in China?

In Chinese universities I have tested Oral English classes two ways. My first way was to give each student 3 minutes to tell me anything they wanted, privately. It worked but I found it tiring. So now I conduct discussion question/answer tests. My purpose in both cases is not to come up with a fine tuned grade, but rather to differentiate the students enough to come up with a proficiency grade based on their proficiency compared to each other. I consider it unfair and poor pedagogy. But I do it to satisfy my boss; hmmmmm...... compromise, art of politics. To mitigate the unfairness, I score the students close to each other despite an often very wide proficiency range.

Three-minute presentation test (tiring but interesting)

The monitor (class captain) and I work up a schedule the week before. It is a 5 minute incremented schedule. That gives me 2 minutes of time flex in which to coax a student to a conclusion if he is going on too long, write down a score and call in the next student. I hear the students one at a time privately with the next students waiting outside the door according to the schedule. I warn the students ahead of time that I will not permit them to read a speech to me but notes are OK. Some of them respond by memorizing a 3 minute speech. I try to discourage this (warn them ahead of time that you will do this) by asking questions to derail their language off their memorized speech if I sense they are "reading" a memorized speech instead of talking to me. I tell them to practice their material, whatever they choose, by telling it to their favorite classmates a few times instead of memorizing it. I tell them to choose topics they personally care about and have feelings about/are interested in. It is a tiring procedure for me but sometimes I learn interesting things about my students and their interests by conducting the oral exam this way. It is often the only chance for most of the students to tell me something privately and some of them use this opportunity to share something personal with their foreign teacher. However, listening to 25 stories *in a row* is just plain tiring! and kind of a lie since I just don't remember it all.

Discussion question and answer test (easier)

Lately I have used this approach and find it easier on me. And it doesn't require any preparation on the part of the students. The class divides into two equal halves. Next I read a short discussion starter text taken from a discussion text book. I add thoughts as I read, in a discursive way, and make sure everyone understands enough of the issues in the text to think about them on their own and formulate discussion questions of their own about them or a related topic. Then, while everyone chats with their neighbor about the issues in the text, or anything else that it brings to their mind, I go around the classroom and ask each student for their student number and name. Those I write on a simple seating chart that I will presently use to record the students scores. It takes about 5 minutes going around the class of 24 students to prepare it -- a simple grid with my name marked at the front of the classroom to keep it oriented will do. Divide the chart down the middle with a bold line, equal numbers of students on teach side. Then the test begins: I call on one student from one side to ask a discussion question of another student who I call on from the other side. They each are allowed a flexy maximum of 1 minute to ask or answer as their case may be. I write a score for language proficiency for each questioner and answerer onto the seating chart at their respective places. After everyone on one side has asked one question and everyone on the other side has correspondingly answered one question, they swap rolls -- I now call on each person, one at a time, from the other side to ask a discussion question from someone on this side. Try to pair the advanced students with the advanced, the intermediate with the intermediate, and the beginners with the beginners. Thus each student gets two marks, one for asking a question and one for answering a question. It kind of drags out, but with 24 students it works and can be done in two hours. If the topic has been beaten to death after the first half have asked their questions, then I say the floor is now open to any discussion question on any topic that they are interested in, from the news, about life, anything, including of course our original topic if anyone still has a burning question that hasn't been asked yet. If their question is a short answer question I have them ask another that is more discussion inviting. I remind them that the purpose is not to quiz each other but to ask questions that invite communication of ideas, not facts, and that their purpose is to demonstrate to me their communicative proficiency in speaking English. If a question is not understood I have it repeated, or even paraphrase it myself if need be. I average each student's question score with his answer score to obtain his score. It has worked. Does drag a little with so many students patiently waiting their turn. I try to keep everyone listening by telling them that they may not repeat any question that has already been asked and therefore must listen carefully to each question. I find this test procedure not ideal, yet practical and easier on me and the students than the 3 minute speech procedure.

How do you test Oral English classes? :-)

Re: Testing speaking -- Linell Davis, 30 Apr 1999

I do not usually teach speaking, but when I do I use a testing method somewhere between Roger's hard and easier methods.

A week before, give the students a list of about 5 topics that will be on the test. They might be related to but not the same as discussion topics you used in the course. I used things like coping with study problems, maintaining health, preparing for work, etc., but you can use anything. Then tell the students that in the test they will have a dialogue on one of the topics with a partner.

When the students arrive in pairs for their test, they draw a slip of paper from a box to determine the topic they will discuss. Each pair has 10 minutes to prepare their dialogue while the previous pair is being tested. This procedure prevents memorization but gives students an opportunity to prepare. The test is 5 minutes and I use two or three minutes to give the pair feedback. This encourages them to set personal goals for improving their speaking ability. The teacher is the observer and evaluator, so it is not so tiring.

How to motivate students to speak English -- Baobin Zhao, December 7, 1998

In the four skills, speaking is usually the poorest for the students of learning English in China. This results from lack of speaking practice, but students, especially Asian students tend to be reluctant to speaking English in class as well as after class. It is important for teachers to encourage and motivate them to speak English, especially in class. During the years of my teaching English in a teacher training college in China, I have tried to build a language speaking environment, adopt many ways and encourage students to open their mouths to speak and they made a lot of progress in speaking English.

Environment is essential

Generally speaking, there are two factors to affect students' speaking English in class. One is they fail to find suitable words to express themselves and the other is they are afraid of making mistakes. Sometimes they make mistakes when they are speaking because they are shy and nervous. So good environment helps the students to speak actively and correctly. On the one hand, I try to ease my students and remove their nervousness, fear and anxiety with encouraging words and on the other I have tried these ways to build a free and lighted-hearted environment.

1. I try to arrange the seats of my classroom in a circle or in groups with the students facing each other not in rows and lines.

2. Let the students speak English sitting in their seats not standing. They will not feel uneasy this way.

3. At first stage, I allow the students to play their tape recording they have prepared for a certain topic beforehand.

4. I ask students to wear a mask they make for themselves to protect them from embarrassment.

5. Let students talk in the sound lab or on telephone without seeing each other.

6. Try to divide the students into pairs and groups according to the different topics, if you can and also you can let them prepare their "opinion", and then have a group spokesman deliver the opinion.

7. Set a day for no native language spoken. Students prepare a certain number of cards and they can write down those words or expressions, which they can not convey in English if they have. Later on we discuss those words and expressions in class.

8. Let the class have 5-10 minutes free talk at the beginning of every class. Students can talk about any interesting events, news or stories they have read, listened and watched recently.

9. Let students have an English class out of classroom with such activities as a class barbecue, picnic and party.

10. Build an English corner at the school and let students talk freely with those who are interested in learning English.

It is essential to try to build an atmosphere where the students no longer feel shy, where they will voluntarily raise their hands to ask a question and where they will freely voice their own opinions.

Encouragement is necessary

After students finish their speaking in class, teachers should encourage them and let the students feel they have made some progress with a sense of their fulfillment. I try to do these:

1. Be firm in a gentle way and give them praise whenever they are doing anything close to a good job.

2. Be sincere and look for opportunities to find them doing something right. Never get frustrated, angry and impatient.

3. Be a nice, sensitive, and approachable person at all times. Never single students out or put them on the spot.

4. Treat them with kindness and respect. Smile a lot and value their opinions. Never embarrass anyone for a laugh.

5. Allow the students to be themselves rather than expecting them to conform to your preconceived ideas about how they should behave. Build their trust, take your time, and wait for them to come to you.

Of course you should point out some apparent mistakes in their speaking, for example, the incorrect words in pronunciation or some serious mistakes in grammar after they finish their speech.

Methods are important

It is very important for the teachers to adopt as many ways as possible to let students to practise English in class. I believe the success of this teaching strategy is due mainly to the fact that the learners can choose what they want to read, listen to, watch, and talk about in class. I try the following ways to do the practice.

1. Free talk: First I try to choose those topics that have something to do with their interest and experience and also choose those subjects that students understand that there is no "right" answer, and the teacher is not judging their ideas, such as holidays, nature, ads, environment and pollution. Sometimes let students have complete freedom to choose the topics whatever they want to talk about. In their learning logs, students keep a record of what they have read and what they have listened to. They usually like to talk about such topics as movie stars, songs, music, magazines, sports and travel.

2. Retelling: Ask students to retell a story they have read, listened and watched.

3. Role playing: Ask students to practise situational dialogues by doing role plays, such as in the medical clinic, at the station, at the post office, in the restaurant and in the shop.

4. Debating: First try to choose some debatable topics such as who is more cleverer? boys or girls? Is the computer game useful or harmful for the students? Then I let them discuss in pairs for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes of discussion in pairs, I divide the class into two groups; each representing their own real belief. Finally I let each group debate the other. I act as a guide to help the debate along and nudge some of the silent students to talk. Almost all the students take part and the class is lively and active.

5. Storytelling: I ask students to tell stories with right intonation and pronunciation and gesture and expressions. I also ask students to invent improvised stories by being provided with situation and characters. Students can get a lot of fun from it.

6. Talking according to the picture: Show students some cartoon pictures, or humorous pictures. Let them talk freely.

7. Short play: I find that students enjoy short plays because students understand that the atmosphere is cooperative -- students helping each other understand the main points of the reading. I asked my students to make a short play about the text we have learned if possible.

8. Speech contest: Choose a topic to have a speech contest in class. I also let the students be a judge to give marks to the speakers.

9. Description: Ask students to describe to a certain thing or event. For instance, give your opinion on appearance after the teacher makes up and changes her clothes. Another example: find my friend. One student describes his/her friend and let the class guess who he/she is.

10. Acting and speaking: Let one student act as a certain profession, for instance a doctor examining a patient. The other student talks about the acts.

11. Speaking and acting: One person tells an act and the others should act as soon as possible, such as, touching your nose, running and asking his name.

12. Speaking and drawing: Let one student give some description and ask other students to draw what the student say, such as, the location of a place and a plan of a school.

13. Watching and speaking: 1) Let students to watch parts of cartoon film or some acts of TV play without any sound and voice and ask some of them to guess the meaning and talk about it. 2) Let one or two students watch and talk about only pictures of film or TV play without any sound. The other students imagine the scene by listening to the students' talking with their backs facing the TV set and then let them watch the program to compare.

14. Acting as an interpreter: Let one student act an interpreter and one as a foreigner and some students as local citizens. They communicate through interpretation, like shopping and sightseeing.

15. Problem solving: Give students some topic with some key words and ask them to solve a certain problem. For example, if you have these tools: a compass, a knife and a tin, how can you survive in the forest for a week?

16. Games: Students love games. I try to choose these games to have students practise.

a) Twenty questions: One student has a word or some expressions in his mind. Other students guess the word by asking only general questions and alternative questions. The student answers them only with "yes" or " no". If the students can guess the word or the expression in less than twenty questions, they win, otherwise they lose.

b) Taboo word description: One student thinks of a certain word in his mind and describe it without mention some words which have something to do with the word. For example, the word "book", you cannot mention the words: book, letter and paper. Another student acts as a judge. Other students listen. If the student mentions those taboo words, he will lose.

c) Listen and guess: One student writes a word or a sentence or a job on the blackboard and the other student describes it with gestures but without mentioning the word itself. Other students sit without facing the blackboard and guess the word by the student's description.

d) Repeat and add: First, one student says a sentence of an improvised story. The next student repeats the sentence and adds another one. Then next student repeats the sentences and adds one more sentence. This will go on and see who will repeat without missing the sentences they have said. Finally this will make a funny story. The student who can say the story fully will win.

e) Speaking and guessing: First choose four students to come to the front or in the middle of the circle with their hands over their ears to prevent them from hearing anything and then show other students an expression or a sentence without letting the four students see it. Finally the students try to tell the four students the meaning of the word or expression that they saw with gestures. The student who guesses right or close right will win.

f) Right or wrong: First ask 4 students to come to the front and other students ask them some alternative questions or tag questions concerning knowledge, such as, geography, history,music and arts, then the four students try to answer them. The student who answer the biggest number of the questions correctly will win.

Teachers should invent more ways to let students practise. This will arouse their interest to speak and help them more easily to master this skill.

Guidance is helpful

Teachers play an important role in making the class lively and active by their guide and arrangement. Students' initiatives should be encouraged and respected, but it does not mean there is no guide or assessment on the part of the teacher. After all, the guidance and help of the teacher makes his job inevitable in the classroom and education. I try to do these:

1. I try to use many gestures, vivid language and clear expressions in class.

2. I always act as an actor as well as a conductor giving demonstrations and showing them first such as retelling, free talking and storytelling.

3. I give students enough time to prepare what they want to speak. I provide the students with a conversation planning worksheet for this purpose. The conversations can vary in length depending on the level of the class. I think it necessary to give students time to plan what they want to say.

4. Let students know the day before what they will be expected to participate in the next day. Sometimes I will give a handout that asks for opinions and tell the class that I expect each student to have at least one with very low level or particularly shy students, I am more than willing to have them say what they have written down.

5. I ask the students to try to memorize the whole thing, but if I smell rote, I break it up by asking questions and try to let them to think and say in their own words.

6. It is not uncommon for learners to feign understanding when in conversations with one another. I also believe that when learners repeatedly feign understanding, they have lost important opportunities to practice conversation strategies. I encourage students to say: " I beg your pardon" if you fail to understand your partner.

7. I try to teach students to concentrate your attention on the important information of the speech rather than every word that your partner says.

8. I try to explain some cultural background before students talk about a certain subject. Let them know the differences between the two cultures, for instance, the courses of a meal to help their speaking and understanding..

9. In speaking I asked the students to focus on fluency over accuracy. Don't think too much of grammar. However, I remind the students some influence from our mother tongue, such as the confused sounds [au and C:] as in the words "house" and "horse" and the easily swallowed sounds [l] and [n] as in the words "government" and "children".

10. Try first to call those students who express and act better to serve as examples. Then call those students who are poorer in English expressing and acting.

Teachers should invent more ways to let students practise. This will arouse their interest to speak and help them more easily to master this skill.


In my experience of teaching, I find students actually have a strong desire to speak. They are reluctant to speak because they are afraid of making mistakes and failing to find suitable words to express themselves well. If the teach try to encourage them to speak by using as many ways as possible and creating a good language speaking environment, students will speak actively, willingly and naturally. Speaking as one of the four skills, can be mastered only through practice. Practice makes perfect.

Baobin Zhao

baobinzhao (at) hotmail.com

Personal homepage: http://epizza.nease.net

How do you get students to communicate? -- Terry Avon, November 20, 1998. SIIT, Thammasat University, Bangkok.

It calls for us to have at hand a variety of techniques, activities and lessons that can successfully bring us to this end: getting students to communicate.

Why don't/won't they?

Susan Schwartz says of her teacher training students, "Some of them hesitated to speak for fear of making mistakes or because they thought their pronunciation wasn't good."

Here, we are talking about the language learner's monitor. That darned built-in mechanism that makes students hesitate while they are self-checking, rechecking and translating everything in their head before they finally come out with it -- at that, only if they're sure it will sound correct.

How do we get them to turn off or at least lower their monitors?

Talk with them about their fear of making mistakes. I tell my students that teachers appreciate hearing their mistakes...it shows us *where* their difficulties are and *how* we can help them. Therefore, mistakes *are* positive!

Use group competition. Students are highly competitive group to group. They want their group to win.

Focus on fluency first and accuracy later. One of my favorite activities that focuses on fluency over accuracy and helps to remove the inhibitions brought on by high monitors is a competitive and communicative game that I call "Hot Seat." It's fun, productive and gets them communicating. It builds confidence. I've found it effective as a warm-up activity as well as a creative way to introduce new vocab or reinforce old vocabulary, functions and/or grammar points.

Lesson plans

Ideas for teaching Directions -- Compiled by Karen Stanley, October 2004
- Several lesson ideas posted to the TEFLChina email list

Hot Seat -- Terry Avon, November 20, 1998
- A round of Hot Seat can last from 15 to 45 minutes or more
- Speaking, vocabulary, phrases, questions, guessing

Pronunciation lesson plan /l/ vs /r/ -- Roger Chrisman, October 20, 1995
- Intermediate to advanced, large and small classes
- Speaking, pronunciation of /l/ and /r/
- 30 minutes -- break it into two 15 minute lessons with at least a day's rest between

A lost friend -- Richard Johnson & Roger Chrisman, May 19, 1998
- Intermediate oral activity
- 15-25 minutes