Speaking Tests

To start.  I was informed months ago that I would be doing speaking tests. “When?” “We don’t know. But you’ll be doing them.” ‘They’re really boring” Andrew whispered.

Then a few weeks ago papers started showing up on my desk. I had been helping everyone out with the midterms – what was or was not an acceptable answer. But these were a little different. They were just random questions. I was in charge of just making sure they sounded right.

And I made a choice. A few of them were right but they just sounded off. And I didn’t correct them because I thought – well, the gist is there. Which is usually all that matters. If I can understand it,but it’s not perfect, then I’m happy.

Also, at one point, the co-teacher who wrote them was standing over my shoulder watching me correct it. I balanced a saving face thing for 100% correctness. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by correcting every little thing.

In short. At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve learned to just do as I’m asked and usually don’t ask “what is this for?” it takes too long to explain because of the second language or because of some kind of school culture I don’t understand.


Since I didn’t even know I was grading, I set those answers into stone. So I had to read them like that. Also, had I known (asked) then I could have changed some of the words I know kids don’t know. Like motto. Asking an 8th grade student “what is your personal motto?” in their second language is not something I would have done.

The worst is “describe the persons’ strength” and it shows a picture of someone playing baseball or something. Well, that’s just awkwardly worded. The target answer is “He is good at playing baseball.” So why isn’t the question “What is the person good at?” Probably because we don’t want to lead the students into the answer “good at?” “he’s good at…” you just fed them the target answer – we like to be more tricky than that. But still I’ve had at least a few kids tell me “he looks strong.” Well, yeah “describe the person’s strength” actually makes more sense like that.

“How long does it take to go to school?” – this seems all well and good. The target answer is “It takes 5 minutes on foot” but some kids are like. “12 years.” Then they gave me that face like Seriously, what are you asking? It takes 12 years to go to school.

For first grade students I stand in the back of the classroom and watch 40 power points about what they did over the weekend. They can earn 5 points. 3 of which should be easy.

1) did you even make a power point? Yes, well then a point for you!

2) did you make a power-point about the topic – weekends? Really can’t mess this one up. Alright, another point.

3) did you present for at least 45 seconds? You knew this was the time-limit so there should be no excuses for messing this one up.

the last two points are more difficult.

4) Grammar/Vocab

5) Intonation/Pronunciation.

For me, I have a hard time grading these kids. Tests matter more than ANYTHING in this culture so I know how much some have prepared. I’m supposed to take a point away from grammar if they make more than 1 mistake. I’m letting 2-4 mistakes go by before I’ll take one away. Even with a native English speaker, we still stumble over words or make awkward sentences. I had a student who lived in Canada for 8 years. His speaking test was full of stutters and errors but I really don’t see the point of it.

This is good, because some kids who make a couple mistakes still end up with 100% – can’t complain about that, really.

I’ve found that the amount of effort they put in will influence my grading some. And honestly, it has to. A few boys have walked up, laughed about how they didn’t even make a power point, then talk for 20 seconds about their family. These students are rich boys who can afford hours of private after-school academies. Their pronunciation is perfect and they made minimal mistakes. BUT, they had no power point, they didn’t meet the time limit, and they talked more about their family members than about their weekend activities (the true topic). 3 points lost. If he (I’m using this pronoun because the girls NEVER did this) makes even one mistake with grammar or pronunciation I usually took a point. He only talked for 20 seconds. If he had talked for the necessary 45 seconds he would’ve made more mistakes. So when you don’t take it seriously, I grade very harshly.

The speaking tests have been interesting because  I’m standing in the back of the classroom marking their scores. The class, from time to time, forgets that I am there. So I am seeing my 1st graders in their true light. A little bit of bullying, popular kids, cattiness, raunchiness, destructiveness, etc.

The boys are drilling holes through their desks with scissors, the girls are only listening to or applauding the popular girls. The girls are trying to devise a cheating method for clicking a pen 1 time for under time, and 2 times if the speaker should keep talking. The boys are writing their speech right there, with 3 minutes before they’re supposed to present. It’s like being in a zoo – both metaphorically and literally. I get to watch them in their natural habitat, which is not at all how they act when I’m in front of the class.

The second and third grade students do their tests one on one, without power points. They come out into the hall and I ask them 5 questions. If they answer the question they get a mark, if they don’t, they don’t get a mark.  The problem with this is that 35 students are sitting in my English classroom bored waiting to do their speaking tests. My desks are getting drilled through with scissors, sliced into, tipped over and drawn on (animals I tell you!). The whole foot of one of the desks is now gone. Where the hell could that have possibly gone and why on earth would you feel you needed that?

One student came out answered “I don’t know” to every one of my questions. I heard him go in an laugh about how he said “I don’t know” to every question. And  suddenly everyone is doing this. To be cool or something. So stupid – no one even hears your test. Just do the questions with me, then tell your dumb friends “ha, i didn’t even do it. I just said ‘I don’t know’ to all of the questions huhuhuh” But there was lots of high-fiving and laughter when they returned from “I don’t know” sessions with me. They really do know they just think they’re too cool.

In the end, I had a personal interview-type questionnaire with exactly 577 students. Yes I was hoarse, yes I was tired of it. Especially asking “Give. Surprising. News.” which isn’t even a question and I had to really enunciate and pause between every word if I ever wanted them to give the target answer.

The 288 1st grade students were easier for me but it meant staying after school a lot to watch power points.

I’m so glad speaking tests are over. Unfortunately Chris will do his next week. Yuck.

What I’ve learned

1) If you get to proofread: correct the ever loving hell out of those questions

2) Actually think about the answers. If a student could answer in a different way, make the question more clear.

3) If that question doesn’t have a question mark at the end of it – don’t do it. The phrases or commands “Give surprising news” are going over their head unless it has an upward inflection “Could you give me surprising news?” would’ve worked about a million times better.

4) If your students are going to be sitting waiting for their turn. Give them something to do. Demand you co-teachers watch Frozen or you’re going to lose about 1/3 of your desks.


5) If your school is bigger than 500 students. Prepare to stay late.



One thought on “Speaking Tests”

  1. Katie:

    Fabulous read; I really enjoyed this bit or writing.

    I remember making statements to my teachers after a test or quiz like…” but the question made no sense”. The teacher would often reply …”no, but it did make you think.”

    Thank you for continuing to write these….

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