The focus of second language education is communication, and oral language is central to the teaching of foreign languages at all levels. For many years now, teachers have been moving away from teaching language in isolation in favor of teaching language through authentic tasks reflecting real-life situations. However, assessment practices have not always reflected how language is being taught.

Oral language in the foreign language classroom is the most problematic of all the skills to assess. Teachers' concerns can be divided in the following areas:

1. What to assess: form or content

2. How to assess: subjectivity vs. objectivity

3. When to assess and how to manage assessment

1. What to Assess

Is it more important to assess the form and accuracy (in both grammar and pronunciation) or to assess the message? This question, which has been puzzling foreign language teachers for many years, will have to be addressed by each individual. However, it is essential to remember that when conversations progress, it is because people respond to what has been said (the message) rather than how it was said (the form). If the actual message is more important than the form, then the assessment and the grade should focus on the message and its components. In this case, what matters most is that the message is comprehensible, regardless of the few mistakes in pronunciation, grammar, and word choice.

However, there may be times when teachers will want to verify that students are comfortable with basic language structures and will want to assess students on the accurate use of these structures.

Overall, what matters most is that students are given the opportunity, on a regular basis, to use language which duplicates as closely as possible language used in real life situations. In addition, if oral language is an important daily component of the foreign language class, then the assessment of oral language should reflect the kind of language used during classroom activities. Instruction and assessment should be closely linked.

2. How to Assess

Subjectivity vs. objectivity

Oral language has always been a large component of the foreign language class, and class participation has always accounted for part of the oral grade assigned by teachers. Students have usually received broad guidelines about contributing and participating in the classroom activities, but they may not have been sure of the specific linguistic expectations. Teachers, then, have assigned students a grade based on their combined observations of the students, but because of the lack of time, these observations often have gone unrecorded. Students may, on occasion, have disagreed and confronted the teacher when they felt that the assigned grade was not fair, since, in their eyes, they had met the requirements for participation.

Traditionally, the more formal assessments of oral language have taken several forms. Teachers have graded the language excerpts and have considered them good, average, or poor based on their "gut" feeling. Teachers inherently know when something is good or bad, but they may not be as comfortable in giving students useful feedback. Or teachers have determined that mispronounced words, grammatical mistakes, wrong choice of words, and hesitations were assigned a point value which was deducted from the students' oral presentation, and, in doing, so they have devalued the content in favor of the form.

3. When to Assess and How to Manage Assessment

The issue of time and management of oral assessment is possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome. Because classes are usually large (especially at the lower levels, where so much of the language is oral), teachers find themselves pulled between the need to assess oral language and the limited time they have with students. Two questions are voiced with regularity by frustrated teachers, "How does one assess oral language when there are 30 students in class? And how does one keep useful records for oral assessment?"

The questions listed above form the basis for this document. Oral Language Assessment in the Foreign Language Class is geared toward improving classroom instruction and student learning by focusing on assessing the speaking skill. The document defines the differences between oral assessment and testing, outlines the different steps needed to create oral assessment tasks, and offers some possible suggestions for the administration and the management of oral assessment in a classroom with many students.

Assess or Test?

What is the difference?
That is the question.


Testing: Testing is a one-time measure which relies on student achievement and recall on one given day. It is the snapshot picture. It is usually dependent on one correct response per question with no regard for demonstration of knowledge and thought process. After the test has been taken a grade is usually given.

Evaluating: Evaluating involves a judgement on the part of the teacher. It usually takes place over a longer time frame and compares past and present learning. It would be the equivalent of two or three snapshot pictures in an album.

Assessment: Assessment has been interpreted to mean many things. It refers to the act of documenting the on-going performance of students and of collecting information about individuals or groups in order to understand them better (SERVE). It has been compared to the photo album which gives an overall understanding of what the students can do with the language. Assessment is curriculum-driven and gives feedback to students and teachers.


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