There are many reasons people take an English proficiency test. For some, it’s a requirement for getting into university. For others, it’s to secure a job. And for many, it’s the final step in passing a course. In less formal contexts, an English proficiency test keeps track of one’s personal progress in learning English. But in all cases, English proficiency tests give us information about what an English language learner knows about English and how well they can use it.
English proficiency tests give us information about an English language learner’s knowledge and skills in English. They can test any or all of the four language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. And depending on which of these skills is being evaluated, an English proficiency test looks very different. Often, the word ‘test’ makes people think about multiple choice items or essays. However, when it comes to speaking, English proficiency tests look a bit different.
The Speaking Parts of English Proficiency Tests
The way we measure speaking skills varies. It depends on the learner and kind of evidence we want to gather about their speaking. Recently, on the Chatterize blog, we’ve explored the concept of communicative competence and its four sub-competencies. These are linguistic, sociolinguistic, strategic, and discourse competence. Depending on its purpose and design, an English proficiency test can measure an English language learner’s proficiency in some or all of these areas. In order to do this, an English Proficiency test for speaking includes various tasks. These tasks prompt the test-taker to produce language that we can measure.
These might include the following:
- Reading aloud: A learner reads a text out loud to produce a pronunciation sample.
- Picture Prompts: A learner describes what they see in a picture. This can be a very simple task that requires one word answers. Or, it can be a way of prompting longer responses.
- Question and answer: A learner responds to questions from an interviewer. The questions may or may not be connected or follow a clear sequence.
- Giving Directions: A learner provides instructions. For example, they might explain how to make a sandwich. Or give directions for getting from one place to another.
- Paraphrasing: A learner puts information that they have either read or heard into their own words.
- Role play: A learner pretends to be someone else to communicate within a particular context.
- Discussions: Two or more learners have a conversation about a topic.
- Oral Presentations: A learner prepares talking points in advance. The learner then shares information with an audience.
There are different reasons to use each of the above types of tasks to get information about a learner’s English language proficiency. And we decide which to use based on what we want to assess. For example, reading out loud serves the very specific purpose of gathering information about pronunciation skills. Meanwhile, an interview or discussion creates a more authentic context. This is better for measuring overall communicative competence.
Measuring Speaking Using Rubrics
The most common way to measure speaking with an English proficiency test is to use a rubric. A rubric is a set of criteria that describes what learners at different proficiency levels can do. In addition, a rubric is a tool for giving learners feedback. Rubrics can be very simple and straightforward. Or, they can be very complex. Human and computer raters use rubrics to grade a learner’s speaking level. Furthermore, rubrics help learners understand what is expected of them. Because of that, learners can use the criteria in a rubric to track their progress and to set goals.
Effective rubrics are designed to be as objective and reliable as possible. Therefore, they are based on benchmarks, or goals, that define what a learner can do at different proficiency levels. Next, the benchmarks guide the design of the task that the English proficiency test asks learners to carry out. In other words, we first decide what a learner should be able to do. Then, we decide how we can test a learner in a way that gives us evidence of their abilities. Finally, the rubric is used to rate how well a speaker meets each goal.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, and Assessment, or the CEFR, is a framework from the Council of Europe that guides the design of many English proficiency tests. Almost all popular English proficiency tests link scores to the CEFR. Furthermore, most reputable English language textbooks, curriculum, and programs connect learning objectives to the CEFR.
CEFR has six proficiency levels across three categories: Basic, Independent and Proficient. These levels are based on the four skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing and are as follows:
|Basic User||Independent User||Proficient User|
|A1: Breakthrough||B1: Threshold||C1: Effective Operational Proficiency|
|A2: Waystage||B2: Vantage||C2: Mastery|
Each level has a series of descriptions of what a user at that level can do across the skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. When it comes to speaking, Basic Users can do simple things like asking questions about everyday things or introducing themselves. Meanwhile, Independent Users can navigate most familiar situations and have the ability to provide in-depth descriptions and explanations. Finally, Proficient Users can use English effectively in different settings easily and spontaneously with flexibility.
Using English Proficiency Tests to Measure Progress
When a rubric is designed using CEFR benchmarks, it informs the design of tasks that can gather information about how well a learner meets those expectations. Then, in classrooms and virtual learning environments, practice leading up to the assessment task is set up to help learners work towards the benchmarks the English proficiency test will measure. In short, using a framework like the CEFR aligns learning and assessment towards common goals.
Whether performance is being measured against the CEFR or another framework, English proficiency tests can be thought of as a way of gaining insight into progress. Often, we think of tests as an end goal. However, they also have the potential to serve as a source of useful information for the learner. Moving through the CEFR levels takes many hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Therefore, learners cannot possibly become proficient without a serious investment of time and effort. Along the way, English proficiency tests can help learners to understand what they can already do. Moreover, they can help learners determine what to work towards.
Chatterize offers an English language proficiency test for speaking. This assessment helps young English language learners understand their English language proficiency level. As our first beta service, we hope to bring transparency to the English learning progress of every child. All at an affordable cost with speedy delivery.
To be an early tester of the assessment service, check out our SpeakOut English Assessment mini-program below (WeChat required to access it).
About the Author
Jessica Madsen is the linguistics advisor at Chatterize.
Jessica is a versatile education professional with a master’s degree in linguistics and over fifteen years of experience in the field of English language teaching. She began her TESOL career teaching in intensive English programs at universities in the United States, including the University of Wisconsin Madison and Purdue University Calumet. She now works as a full-time consultant on national and international education projects in curriculum and assessment design.
To contact her, find her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicamadsen813.