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Child-friendly Placement Testing

Girl sat at computer smilingAhead of her talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Amy Malloy takes a look at the importance of child-friendly placement testing. Amy is an Assessment Manager in the Test Development Unit at OUP, specialising in young learner assessment.

Young learner assessment is becoming an increasing issue in primary language teaching. Parents, fellow teachers, and educational authorities all want more and more information on the standard of English of children under their care.

In a world where language testing is becoming increasingly important, with decisions on scores being potentially career-defining for both teenagers and adults, we have a responsibility as educators to ensure that this pressure does not begin to impact upon younger learners.

We can do this in three ways:

1. By finding ways to assess our young students’ language ability in a low-pressure, fun, enjoyable way in the classroom. Research has shown that young learners actually produce and respond to language better when they are having fun.

2. By ensuring that any information learned from this assessment is used to target our teaching to each individual child’s ability. This can increase the child’s motivation and maximise learning outcomes.

3. By understanding more about the different types of assessment tools at our disposal and what they should be used for. We believe that accurate and reliable assessment can be integrated into everyday classroom teaching, as part of an enjoyable and positive experience for young learners, rather than causing anxiety.

The best place to start is with accurate placement at the start of the year. By creating a fun placement lesson at the start of a course or school year, not only do the children start off motivated and engaged, but you also gain accurate information with which to confidently plan and customise your teaching for the term or year, which in turn serves to maintain motivation.

My presentation at IATEFL Liverpool will take a workshop format, looking at different types of assessment tools and the information they can give us, how to create a positive placement testing experience in the classroom, and finally, ways to integrate the new online Oxford Young Learners Placement Test into an engaging first lesson of your children’s school year or language course.

Amy Malloy will be talking about Child-friendly Placement Testing at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 14 at 3.05pm.


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Preparing for Standardized English Language Tests

Students sitting an examHow can you help your students prepare for standardized tests? Lawrence J. Zwier, author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT, offers his view.

Certain principles of test preparation are just common sense. For one thing, it is good to expose students to the form of a test before they take it. A practice run through any standardized test lessens the chance that structural surprises will skew the results of the test. This is especially true with items like the “reading-to-learn” questions on the Internet-based TOEFL (the iBT), whose format is not 4-option multiple choice. A test-taker who expects this different format won’t be so easily thrown off his or her pace. For another thing, preparation increases confidence, and a confident test-taker is more likely to show what he or she can really do.

If you are a teacher but NOT in a formal test-preparation school, can you have any role in helping students get ready for standardized tests? You definitely can. One avenue is through discrete-point preparation—targeting vocabulary and syntax in ways that mirror tasks on the IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, or whatever. First, get a test-prep guidebook for the appropriate test from one of the major publishers. Examine the sample items. Then look at your course syllabus and at the textbooks you use—especially your reading and grammar books.  Is it possible to give students exercises in a test-like format? For example, if you know some of your students will take TOEIC and your class is working with present perfect verbs, formulate some of your tasks as TOEIC-like items: “They have lived here _____ 2009,” followed by four possible options including “since”.

Another area in which any teacher can advance test-readiness is through good contextualized teaching. With the 2005 introduction of the iBT, standardized testing took a turn toward contextualization. If you go to toefl.org, the TOEFL-related site maintained by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), you’ll see a relatively global approach to test preparation. Students are advised to engage in real-life language-learning activities that have relevance to TOEFL preparation. Mix this contextual approach with the more discrete, local slant that you find in guides to the various tests. Widening the universe of test-prep activities can only help. The more connections students see between life and testing, the more smoothly they will move through training and testing into the jobs or academic admissions they aspire to.

Lawrence J. Zwier is Associate Director for Curriculum at the English Language Center, Michigan State University, USA. He is the author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT and many ESL/EFL textbooks and is a frequent presenter at TESOL and other conferences.


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Can informal testing methods be as beneficial as formal ones?

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make testing fun and your students enthusiastic.

Informal methods of testing and assessment are as useful as standardized tests. They are typically based on every day classroom activities to measure the progress of students toward the goals and objectives where students are not aware of being monitored and assessed. These activities are monitored and recorded by the teacher as an observer. They allow teachers to keep track of the progress of their students regularly. Portfolios are great ways of monitoring and assessing the students throughout the entire school year.

Can tests be fun? In order to avoid staleness it would be good to allow your students to do group tests from time to time. They will have to help one another and work together for a group grade. Besides the common benefits tests usually provide, this kind of testing will help your students develop collaboration skills.

Have you ever thought of how to make students projects more than just a decoration on the classroom walls? Have you ever tried a group quiz based on questions extracted from your students’ projects? I will describe something I usually do when I ask them to do a group project outside the classroom. The aim is to test reading and speaking skills and monitor and assess some social skills.

The first step is to be done by the teacher – to display students’ posters all around the classroom and prepare questions in advance. Students are divided into groups of five. Each group is given 15 questions (three per each member on a separate piece of paper). Their first task is to move around the classroom (from one poster to another) to read (scan the text) and find the answers to their questions in 10 minutes. Once they have finished this, they go back to their groups to put their answers together and write them in the order of the questions (1 – 15) that are given on a new piece of paper. Then groups switch papers with their answers for checking, marking and correction – group 2 gets the answers from group 1, group 3 from group 2, and so on until group 1 gets the answers from the last group. Now the quiz can start. Teacher reads the questions and answers aloud, students check, mark and correct. Each correct answer earns one point for the group. It is advisable to use PowerPoint or another kind of visual support at this stage of the class. All the groups are rewarded according to the results they have scored. Teacher will decide how – by marking, giving written certificates, flags indicating their achievements etc. – depending on the age group s/he is teaching and on the level of the task students have to complete. Continue reading


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How to make your students enthusiastic test-takers

Happy teenage English studentsTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make your students enthusiastic test-takers.

Tests are usually students’ least favourite and most stressful school activity. But, there are some ways to make our learners feel more relaxed and enthusiastic about dealing with tests.

To begin with, think about yourselves as test–makers. Do you think a good test–maker  makes a good test–taker? I do.

During my first years of teaching, as a young and slightly overconfident teacher, I naively believed I was a very good test–maker. Then, in a very short time I sensed my first bitter flavours of the reality of testing results. Every testing time was another disappointment both for me and my students – more than half of them scored badly. In spite of that and completely unaware of the fact I should have changed something, I still believed my tests were great and blamed my students for the bad results. Fortunately, I met a more experienced English teacher who was willing to help – to ‘attack’ my tests before they were given to my students.

While doing the tests I had created, she kept asking me questions like “What am I supposed to do here? What does this actually mean? Do you think kids will ever use something like this? What do you want to test here?” She also complained about the time – “Thirty minutes have passed and I have completed only half of the tasks”or the context itself – “This sounds really stupid”etc.  I must say this was a major blow to my overconfidence as a teacher. I suddenly realized my basic errors and became more aware of the close interrelation between test-makers and test-takers.

I haven’t stopped searching for better testing techniques ever since then and have developed some strategies. Welcome to my ‘testing database’ and feel free to update it!

How about making testing time a regular routine by establishing a testing timetable in advance? Why not tell your students they are going to have a test after each unit or after every two or three units?  If they know this, they will be able to plan their revision at home in time.

Classroom preparation activities? Plan them well in advance and in the way that will make your students familiar with what you are going to test and the form of the test itself.

Make sure the instructions are clear. Be specific about the requirements and don’t forget to give an example. Students sometimes fail to complete their tasks not because they do not know English, but because they do not understand what they are expected to do. Have a look at the following reading task:

Insert the phrases into the appropriate gaps.

 a) a part time job
b) baby sitters
c) deliver newspapers
d) 60% of students
e) in the morning
f) 20% of students
g) in the evening
h) They don’t need
i) as shop assistants
j) they want

 In Britain, children can have ____________ (1) when they’re 13. Lots of teenagers work in the evenings or at weekends ____________ (2), or in restaurants and fast food places. Others ____________ (3) before they go to school ____________ (4).  Girls often find work as ____________ (5). In one school near London, ____________ (6) said that they had a part time job. It’s more than a half. Most say ____________ (7) the money to buy clothes and CDs. ____________ (8) the money for their families.

Do you think the instructions are good? Is it clear what students have to insert? The letters preceding the phrases or the phrases in full? There are eight gaps and ten phrases! Continue reading


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Designing Good Tests: Principles Into Practice

Keith Morrow is the editor of ELT Journal and has worked in language testing for many years. He was involved in developing some of the first ‘communicative’ language tests, and is currently working as a consultant to testing projects in Austria and Luxembourg. Keith hosted a Global Webinar ‘Designing Good Tests: Principles Into Practice’ on January 12th and will be repeating it on January 31st. You can find out more information and register to attend here.

Testing goes on in almost every educational institution in the world, and is familiar to both teachers and students. “On Thursday we’ll have a vocabulary test”.  “I want to get good marks in the end-of-year exams”.

Despite this, teacher training programmes often pay very little attention to the role, purpose, and nature of testing in the classroom. As a result many teachers feel insecure about the principles and practice of testing, and so they put together tests based on what they have always done – or just use tests from published sources.

Do you see a little bit of yourself in this description? Would like to find out more about some background ideas in testing?

For example, what is testing? Is it the same as assessment)? Why do we test? To help the students or to frighten them? Is it a carrot or a stick? How is a test made? What are the different forms a test might take? What are the different focuses a language test might have? And most importantly, of course, how can we design better tests in our own context and for our own purposes?

These are some of the areas we will be looking at in my webinar on 31st January. Please come and join me, to meet colleagues from all over the world online, and to have a chance to share ideas and insights about testing.

After the webinar on this topic that I gave earlier this month, there were a lot of questions that I didn’t have time to answer online. So here are some quick thoughts on some of them.

Can the selected response task test both elements of language and communicative skills?

A multiple-choice test can be a good way of finding out what students know. But finding out what students can do is rather more difficult. If you are thinking of communicative skills in terms of production (speaking and writing), I think you have to see how well they can actually speak or write. And you can’t do that with multiple choice.

Continue reading