For the longest time, the idea of testing language have always revolved around testing the knowledge of the language itself but now, the idea of testing for communicative competence is getting more and more popular. In testing communicative competence, speaking and listening tasks are commonly used. Those require tasks such as the completion of an information gap and role play (Kitao & Kitao, 1996).
As teachers of ESL, it is imperative for us to enhance the students’ delivery skills, increase their confidence, and develop their methods of organization and critical thinking skills. In order to do this, a valid and reliable way of assessment to determine whether the set goals were met is required. The oral communication field needs a clear-cut method of evaluation as can be found in discrete language skill classes such as listening comprehension (Nakamura & Valens, 2001). Language teachers and language testers need a method which takes subjective qualitative observations and then transforms them into objective quantitative measures.
A critical issue in the assessment is the selection of criteria for evaluating performance. Stiggins (as cited in Butler & Stevens, 1997) points out that the selection of these criteria should be one of the first steps in designing performance assessments. Students should understand ahead of time what is expected of them. This can actually help them determine on what basis their performance will be judged. When students are actively involved in establishing assessment criteria for tasks, they do not only have a better understanding of what is expected of them when they perform the tasks, but they will be able to more fully appreciate why the criteria are important (Butler & Stevens, 1997).
The Issue of Assessing Speaking Skills.
Speaking is probably one of the most difficult skills to test. It combines skills that may have little or no correlation with each other, and which do not do well to objective testing. In ( Kitao & Kitao, 1996), it was mentioned that there are not yet good answers to questions about the criteria for testing these skills and the weighing of these factors.
It is possible to find people who can produce the different sounds of a foreign language appropriately; hence they lack the ability to communicate their ideas correctly. This is one of the difficulties that testers encounter when testing the oral production of learners. However, the opposite situation could occur as well; some people do have the ability of expressing their ideas clearly, but at the same time they cannot pronounce all the sounds correctly.
Another difficulty is the actual implementation of speaking skills testing. That is because it is difficult to test a large number of learners in a relatively short time. Therefore, the examiner is put under great pressure (Heaton, 1988).
The next difficulty is that speaking and listening skills are very much related to one another; it is impossible to keep them mutually exclusive. In most cases, there is an interchange between listening and speaking, and speaking appropriately depends on comprehending spoken input. Therefore, this has an impact on testing speaking because the testers will not know whether they are testing purely speaking or speaking and listening together.
Finally, the assessment and scoring of speaking skills is one of its biggest problems. If possible, it is better to record the examinees’ performance and the scoring will be done upon listening to the tape. The aspects of speaking that are considered part of its assessment include grammar, pronunciation, fluency, content, organization, and vocabulary. (Kitao & Kitao, 1996).
Depending on the situation and the purpose of the test, testers need to choose the appropriate methods and techniques of testing.
The Solution: Method of Assessing Speaking Skills.
3.1. Monologue, Dialogue and Multilogue Speaking Test.
Nakamura & Valens (2001) conducted a study on Japanese graduate students at Keio University. They used three different types of speaking tests as a form of assessment. The first type is the Monologue Speaking Test which is also called the presentation. Students were asked to perform some tasks such as; show and tell where they talk about anything they choose. This gives the students a chance to make a mini presentation. The second type is Dialogue Speaking Test which is also known as the interview. It is an open-ended test where the students lead a discussion with the teacher, and students in that kind of test are required to use conversation skills that they have learned before. The third type is Multilogue Speaking Test that is also called the discussion and debating. Here, the discussions are student-generated, and students are put into groups where as a group, they decide on a topic they feel would be of interest for the rest of the classroom.
The evaluation criteria that was used in that study was as follows:
Ability to explain an idea
Discussing and debating:
Able to be part of the conversation to help it flow naturally
Uses fillers/ additional questions to include others in conversation
Transfers skills used in dialogues to group discussions
The rating scale ranged between poor and good with the symbols from 1 to 4.
The finding of their study reveals that among the three test types, the discussion tests was the most difficult followed by interview test and the presentation test.
In Malaysia, we saw a similar system being implemented but were poorly regulated and too restrictive. Dialogues are used in the school-based assessment and Monologues and Multilogues are common in both school-based assessment and the MUET speaking test. Although it follows this model, it failed to accurately gauge student’s speaking ability as the tests were poorly regulated (prevalent in school-based assessment) and too restrictive (MUET).
3.2. Testing speaking using visual material
Without even comprehending spoken or written material, it is possible to test speaking using visuals such as pictures, diagrams, and maps. Through a careful selection of material, the testers can control the use of vocabulary and the grammatical structures as required. There are different types of visual materials that range in their difficulty to suit all the levels of learners. One common stimulus material could be a series of pictures showing a story, where the student should describe. It requires the student to put together a coherent narrative. Another way to do that is by putting the pictures in a random order of the story to a group of student. The students decide on the sequence of the pictures without showing them to each other, and then put them down in the order that they have decided on. They then have the opportunity to reorder the pictures if they feel it is necessary. In the Malaysian context, this system is already in use in the school-based oral assessment for primary school.
Another way of using visual stimulus is by giving two students similar pictures with slight differences between them, and without seeing each other’s pictures they describe their own pictures in order to figure out the differences. However, there is a problem in using visual stimulus in testing speaking, it lies in that the choice of the materials used must be something that all the students can interpret equally well, since if one student has a difficulty understanding the visual information, it will influence the way he/she is evaluated (Kitao & Kitao, 1996).
3.3. The Taped Oral Proficiency Test
In that approach, the students’ performances are recorded on tapes and then assessed later by the examiner. This method has some advantage and some disadvantages. According to Cartier (1980), one disadvantage of the taped test is that it is less personal; the examinee is talking to a machine and not to a person. Another disadvantage is that it has a low validity. Moreover, the taped test is inflexible; if something goes wrong during the recording, it is virtually impossible to adjust for it. On the other hand, there are some advantages of that type of test. It can be given to a group of students in a language lab, it is more standardized and more objective since each student receives identical stimuli, and scoring can be performed at the most convenient or economical time and location.
I believe that the taped test method is very practical when it comes to testing large numbers of students where the teacher would not have enough time to assess each one of them individually. However, the problem lies in not having enough language labs in some schools which, in turn, creates a big difficulty for teachers.
Previous research on classroom testing of ESL speech skills provides several models of both task types and rubrics for rating, and suggestions regarding procedures for testing speaking with large numbers of learners. However, there is no clear, widely disseminated consensus in the profession on the appropriate paradigm to guide the testing and rating of learner performance in a new language, either from second language acquisition research or from the best practices of successful teachers. While there is similarity of descriptors from one rubric to another in professional publications, these statements are at best subjective. Thus, the rating of learners’ performance rests heavily on individual instructors’ interpretations of those descriptors (Pino, 1998).
In spite of the difficulties inherent in testing speaking, a speaking test can be a source of beneficial backwash. If speaking is tested, unless it is tested at a very low level, such as reading aloud, this encourages the teaching of speaking in classes.
In my opinion, testing speaking skills could be a very interesting experience, and it gives teachers an opportunity to creative in selecting the test items and materials. Moreover, it has a great impact on students by making them enjoy taking the test and feel comfortable doing so if the teacher chooses the materials that interest their students and that is suitable to their age and levels of knowledge.
Butler, F. A., & Stevens, R. (1997) Oral languages assessment in the classroom. Theory Into Practice, 36 (4). 214-219.
Cartier, F. A. (1980). Alternative methods of oral proficiency assessment. In J. R. Firth (Ed.), Measuring spoken language proficiency (7-14). GA: Georgetown University.
Heaton, J. B. (1988). Writing English language tests. Longman.
Kitao, S. K., & Kitao, K. (1996). Testing speaking (Report No.TM025215). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED398261)
Kitao, S. K., & Kitao, K. (1996). Testing communicative competence (Report No. TM025214). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED398260)
Nakamura, Y., & Valens, M. (2001). Teaching and testing oral communication skills. Journal of Humanities and Natural Sciences,3, 43-53.
Pino, B. G. (1998). Prochievement testing of speaking: matching instructor expectations, learner proficiency level, and task types. Texas Papers in Foreign Language Education, 3, (3), 119-133.