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Writing ELT tests for teenagers | ELTOC 2020

ELT AssessmentI don’t want to sound too stuffy as I firmly believe that 42 is the new 21, however, teenagers today live very different lives to those who came before. Starting this blog with a quick comparison of my teenage life and my niece’s teenage life seems a good way to start. I was 12 in 1988, my life revolved around school, family, youth club, and the 4 channels on UK television. I loved music and spent all my pocket money on tapes, spending my evenings memorising the lyrics from the tape inserts. Now, Millie, my niece is 12 in 2019 and her teenage years are radically different to mine. Still, her life revolves around family and schools but the impact of technology on her life is of fundamental importance and so creates the biggest difference between our teenage lives.

But what does all of this have to do with assessment? Well, as Director of Assessment at OUP responsible for English language tests, some of which are aimed at teenagers, it’s very much my concern that what we design is appropriate for the end-user. My ELTOC talk will be about designing assessments for teenagers. Let’s start by considering why…

Why do we design a test specifically for teenagers?

Our aim is to make the test an accurate reflection of the individual’s performance as possible, and that means removing any barriers that increase cognitive load. Tests can be stressful enough and so I see it as a fundamental part of my job to remove any extraneous stress. In terms of a test for teenagers, this means providing them with test items that have a familiar context. Imagine an 11-year-old doing an English language assessment and facing this writing task. It’s not a real task but it is indicative of lots of exam writing tasks.

The 11 year might have the linguistic competence to describe advantages and disadvantages, make comparisons and even offer their own opinion. However, the teenager is likely to struggle with the concepts in the task. The concepts of work and flexible working will not be familiar enough to enable them to answer this task to the best of their ability.

This is why we develop tests specifically aimed at teenagers. Tests that allow them to demonstrate linguistic competence that is set within domains and contexts that the teenager is familiar with. An alternative question that elicits the same level of language is given below. It might not be the perfect question for everybody but it’s a question that should be more accessible to most teenagers and that allows them to demonstrate linguistic competence within a familiar context.

We have a responsibility to get this right and to provide the best test experience for everybody to enable them to demonstrate their true abilities in the test scenario. For us, behind the scenes, there are lots of guidelines we provide our writers with to try to ensure that the test is appropriate for the target audience, in this case, teenagers. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Writing a test for teenagers

Let’s think about the vocabulary used by a teenager and vocabulary used by the adults writing our test content, the potential for anachronisms is huge. Let’s look at this issue through the evolution of phone technology.

As well as the item evolving, so has the language: phone / (mobile) phone / (smart) phone. The words in parentheses gradually become redundant as the evolved item becomes the norm so it’s only useful to say ‘mobile phone’ if you are differentiating between another type of phone. For those of us who have lived through this evolution, we may use all of the terms interchangeably and writers might choose to write tasks about the ‘smartphone’. However, teenagers have only ever known the ‘smart, mobile phone’- to them, it’s just a phone! It’s not a big deal unless you’re a teenager in an exam suddenly faced with a phrase that might cause confusion. Other examples of such anachronisms include:

  • Video game, or is it just a game?
  • Do we say desktop, laptop, or just computer?
  • Would you talk about a digital camera or a camera, or would you just use your phone?
  • Are good things: cool, wicked, rad, awesome, chill, lit or maybe you just stan?

Writing tests for teenagers that incorporate the kind of language they are used to needs to be considered but this should be balanced with maintaining and measuring a ‘standard English’ that is recognised by the majority of people doing the test in different countries around the world as we produce global tests. Another important consideration is creating tasks of sufficient complexity that we can be sure of the level we are measuring.

As a test provider, we have people whose job it is to solve some of these challenges. For teachers, who write assessments for their students, some of the same challenges exist but with less resource available to solve them. This is why you should join me for my ELTOC session!


ELTOC 2020

During my talk, I’ll be sharing my expertise on all thing assessment. You’ll learn lots of tips that you can take away about how to design your own classroom assessments for teenagers.

So, if this sounds interesting to you, come along to my session and learn more about designing assessments for teenagers. See you there!


Sarah Rogerson is Director of Assessment at Oxford University Press. She has worked in English language teaching and assessment for 20 years and is passionate about education for all and digital innovation in ELT. As a relative newcomer to OUP, Sarah is really excited about the Oxford Test of English and how well it caters to the 21st-century student.