A Simpler Way To Assess Oral Skills

It’s the 21st century: Why do we keep taking 3 days to do oral exams when it can be done in ten minutes?

If you can relate to this post’s title, it’s probably because you still go through 3 or 4 days of intensive (for you, not for your students who only meet with you for a few minutes each) testing at the end of each semester or school year.

We probably assess oral skills this way because that’s how our teachers did it. For most of us (or maybe for all of us), classroom-based language learning happened in the 20th century. The process that made sense then, given what we knew about language assessment and given the available technology, was to meet individually with each student or with a pair of students, have them respond to a prompt or interact in front of us, and then assign a grade based on their performance.

This process can be rather time consuming. Depending on how many students we teach, we need 3 or 4 classes at the end of the term exclusively for oral exams. If you have 70 students total, scheduling 35 (for paired exams) or 70 (for individual testing) 5-10 minute exams translates into between 6 and 12 hours of student contact time, not including the transition time between exams. If you teach middle school or high school, you also need to create something for the other students in the room to stay busy while their classmates meet with you to take the test.

Assessing oral skills in the 21st century

As language teachers, we like to think we’re teaching our students 21st century skills (see the ACTFL 21st century skills map). We integrate 21st century advancements in language pedagogy and we leverage 21st century technology for language learning (smartphones, smartboards, tablets, social media). Why, then, are we still assessing oral skills the 20th-century way?

As I’ve been transitioning from the traditional modular evaluation of language learning (i.e., listening + vocabulary + grammar + reading + writing + speaking) towards IPAs (Integrated Performance Assessment - i.e., evaluating language as used in communication), I’ve realized I no longer need the 3-4 days for oral exams at the end of the term. My students have gained those days back for actual language learning and, instead, I do lesson tests following the IPA framework. The oral portion of these tests takes literally 10 minutes.

How do 3-4 days of oral exams become 10 minutes of recording in the classroom?

Following the IPA template, each lesson test has three tasks: interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. For the interpretive task, students engage with an authentic source and complete a reading or listening comprehension activity. For the interpersonal task, students use the knowledge extracted from the interpretive task to engage in an interactional activity with a partner. I ask them to record their interaction in Extempore and submit it as part of their test. This usually takes 5-7 minutes. For the presentational task, students express in writing or speaking, their personal reaction to the content of the interpretive task. If the answer is spoken, students record it in Extempore. This usually takes 2-3 minutes.

By doing IPAs after every lesson, the need to have a comprehensive final oral exam disappears. I’m actually assessing oral skills more regularly and in a more student-centered way: The audio recordings produced for each lesson test add up to a portfolio of speaking tasks for my students to reflect upon and self-assess their progress at the end of the term.

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