Testing ESL Students: Preparing Grammar and Vocabulary Tests

TEFL grammar testing ESL studentsThis TEFL article gives practical advice for the different kinds of tests that ESL teachers must administer to their students.

Grammar – Testing ESL Students

When evaluating students’ knowledge of grammar it is very important to determine whether each exercise is evaluating the mechanics part of the grammar or the meaning. In other words, it is important to determine whether the exercise is checking the students’ knowledge of the structure versus the knowledge of the function this structure fulfills in context.

Exercises that test the grammar structure can be completed by students that have good memory, whereas memory alone will not help students understand or perform well in an exercise that tests students’ comprehension of the function of each statement.

For example, an exercise that asks students to fill in the blanks with verbs in the correct tense will generally be testing the structure necessary to express the tense, rather than the meaning or function of the tense.

In order to test their knowledge of the function of the tense, the exercise can, for example, provide a context paragraph with three possible sentences to complete it. According to the tense’s function, only one sentence would fit the context and the students would have to identify it depending on their knowledge of the meaning of the tense.

Ideally when testing grammar, both structure and function should be evaluated equally.

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Vocabulary – Testing ESL Students

Evaluating vocabulary should be first and foremost according to the level of the students, for the results to truly reveal whether the students have incorporated the knowledge of the new words and expressions.

Secondly, the number of words or expressions tested at one time should never be too high; otherwise, students will learn the vocabulary by heart and forget it right after the test.

The best way to test vocabulary is to ensure students can identify the meaning of the words, and ideally use these words in their own sentences. A realistic way of testing vocabulary should always provide students with context, since that is the way communication takes place in daily interactions. If the vocabulary is evaluated without the help of context, the results would not be reliable because the authenticity of the exercise is compromised.

It is also important to bear in mind that the vocabulary in the instructions should also be according to the level of the students taking the evaluation. For example, for beginner students you would not use the word ‘identify’ in the instructions, it would be more level-appropriate to use ‘find’ instead.

Clear Expectations and Help – Testing ESL Students

One of the safest ways of ensuring that test results really inform a teacher’s practice is to make expectations very clear before and in the test. A teacher should inform the students what the test will include and what passing the test implies and requires from them. Discussing sample answers or adding them at the beginning of each exercise can also help the students prepare for the evaluation with more accuracy and perform according to their knowledge.

Sometimes giving students a practice test or exam and discussing  it in class will help students become less anxious and understand the format of the evaluation ahead of time. This minimizes the possibility of making mistakes due to misunderstandings.

Other Helpful Tips – Testing ESL Students

Finally, it is important to be aware of cultural differences when creating evaluations. If a text, whether fictional or not, is used, it should not be completely unknown to the students in terms of its cultural content. For example, if the students are in or come from Eastern Europe, using a reading comprehension passage about a legend from Africa can pose extra comprehension difficulties if the topic has never been discussed in class. Something as simple as names in other languages can also present challenges for students if they have never heard them before because they would not be able to assume – unless clearly stated in the text – whether the person in question is female or male for example. General knowledge cannot be taken from granted either when including certain information in tests. It is always better to err on the safe side and leave texts that require these kinds of discussions for class work, rather than for evaluations.

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