Language Testing

Although tests are the dreaded learning part for our students,  they are considered an important teaching  tool. They create competition within the classroom,  provide feedback and give a sense of success to the learners.

What is a test?

A test is a method of measuring a person’s ability or  knowledge  in a given area. It is obviously a set of technique or procedures that samples performance but  infers competence and which takes into consideration the testee’s previous experience. Some fundamental characteristics of a test are the following:

  • It is a measuring of ability or knowledge
  • The measuring can be broad and inexact as in informal tests (a good tennis player)
  • But it can also be mathematically quantified ( exact) as in formal tests
  • It is the performance that is tested but the underlying knowledge that is targeted or inferred
  • The target can be a given area (proficiency, grammar, pronunciation …)
  • Tests  take into consideration  the testee’s previous experience.

Requirement of tests

  1. Practicality:

    It must be practical in terms of financial limitation, time constraints, ease of administration, scoring and interpretation

  2. Rliability:

    There are two types of test reliability:

    • Test reliability mean that if we assign the same test to the same subjects or matched subjects on two different occasions it would yield the same result.
    • Scorer or rater reliability on the other hand refer to the cosistency of scoring by two or more scorers
  3. Validity

    Does the test measure what it is intended to measure?  This refers to content and construct validity

    • If a test samples the class situations or the universe of the subject matter about which conclusions are to be drawn, it is said to have content validity.
    • Constructs are things like ” proficiency”, ” communicative competence”,  “self-esteem” … Any theoretical category can be thought of as a construct. Tests reflect these constructs. When preparing tests one need to be satisfied that these tests are adequate definitions of a construct.

Kinds of tests

  1. proficiency test
  2. Diagnostic test
  3. Achievement test
  4. Aptitude test

Discrete vs Integrative tests

Discrete tests derive from audiolingual structural approach of language learning. Language is seen in this approach as a sum of discrete blocks to be learned separately. It focuses on isolated language points that students must master before proceeding to a higher level.

Integrative tests appeared as the communicative approach started to gain fields in the foreign and second language teaching. If discrete items take language skill apart integrative tests put it back together. Examples of such tests include  cloze tests and dictation.

Assessing communicative competence

Testing has to be pragmatically relevant. It should revolve around three main areas, namely

  • grammar,
  • discourse
  • sociolinguistics and illocutionary competence

Merill swain (1984) listed four primary criteria for the construction of communicative tests:

  1. Start from somewhere.
    Building on existing knowledge and principles. This refers to  a theoretical framework that is a foundation for devising  any communicative tests.
  2. Concentrate on content
    Instead of requiring the testee to jump from one topic to another,  a communicative test need to have motivating, interesting and substantive content.  This includes, for example, problem solving and situations that use context and are integrative and interactive.
  3. Bias for best.
    Tests need to do everything possible to elicit the very best performance. this is possible only if the testee feel that s/he can indeed succeed and is provided with a stress free environment . The testee should also be given enough time to complete the task.
  4. Work for washback.
    Tests provide  feedback. This means that we should not teach to test. Tests are rather teaching tools  for better achievements.

In a nutshell, while our students fear being tested, a lot of teachers contend that we cannot do without tests.  Tests provide feedback and create competition. Nevertheless, there are some legitimate questions that need to be answered:

  • ” Is everything we teach testable?”
  • “Do we actually test performance or competence?”
  • “Aren’t there any external factors that might affect tests?”
  • “Is high scoring in a test really an evidence of language mastery?”


H.Douglas Brown (1987) “Principles of Language Learning and Teaching “


3 thoughts on “Language Testing”

  1. hello, i am asem an english teacher . i teach english here at arab school as a foreign language
    and i need to know how can i make agood test to test students in a curriculam designed in the light of communicative approach. in other words could you supply me with some criteria should be available in the mentioned tess.
    thany for your efforts

  2. Hi Asem glad to have you in our blog. Communicative tests are hard to design and evaluate. Yet it is interesting to note, given the state of EFL nowadays , that language testing should reflect the methodology you are using in your classroom. That is, if you are teaching according to the communicative approachn your tests should be communicatively designed.
    The bottom line of communicative tests is that they should test appropriateness rather than mere production of (inappropriate) grammatical sentences.

    1.Communicative tests may be context specific. That is a test for a group of business learners may differ from a test designed for university students
    2.Testees must respond to real life situations.
    3.Some criteria for communicative tests may be related to the degree of politeness , formality, …
    4.It is inevitable that the evaluation of communicative tests may be subjective as it is difficult to distinguish right from wrong responses in real life situations
    5.Performance in communicative tests reflects an underlying comptence that is linguistic, sociolinguistic, pragmatic, strategic…
    6.Any communicative testing should consider this multi-dimensional nature of language

    Examples of communicative tests may include:

    1.Information gap. This involves two (or more) learners. Each testee has part of the information. They have to negotiate in order to get the missing information. A clear context must be specified for the test.
    2.Letter writing. Leraners may be asked to write, for example, a buisiness letter to ask for information or to respond to a complaint by a customer
    3.Note taking. Testees are involved in a listening activity in which they have to take notes and, for example, write a report

    These are just some examples of course.
    I hope I have answered your question Asem:)

  3. I did appreciate your article thank you for that .I now know more about the different approaches to testing. However I would like to know if there is discrepancy between integrative tests and communicative testing . Leandre brou

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