How to Create All-Purpose Communicative Assessments for ESL Students

How to Create All-Purpose Communicative Assessments for ESL Students

For English as a second language teachers, deciding on the best type of assessment for your students can be complicated.

On the one hand, standardized tests and district requirements want statistics, numbers and percentages from your students, which prove your students’ success in learning as well as yours in teaching. Real proficiency in language is something different, though, and shouldn’t assessments be designed to measure that type of proficiency? Perhaps there is some middle ground, some way to design your assessments so they provide measurable success in real language situations. If this is what you are looking for, these tips on creating communicative assessments for ESL students may help you develop those assessments that are able to make everyone happy.

How to Create All-Purpose Communicative Assessments for Your ESL Students

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    What is Communicative Assessment?

    Communicative assessment is a method of determining your students’ overall proficiencies in English. This type of assessment is sometimes considered more beneficial to the student because it gives them practical feedback about real language use in real life situations. Traditional testing methods like cloze tests, multiple choice exams, and fill in the blanks, though they may give you a reliable measure of whether your student has learned a specific language principle, do not measure real language use in realistic settings. If the true purpose of language studies is to acquire a second (or third) language, shouldn’t assessments focus on measuring that proficiency? Thus, some educators prefer to use more communicative assessments to measure the abilities of their students in real language situations.

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    How to Design a Communicative Assessment

    Ideally, communicative assessments would measure the overall success your students have achieved in English as a second language, but measuring the entirety of skills and abilities of a person’s language use is not practical nor is it feasible. Therefore, when you are designing a communicative assessment, you must determine the specific language skill you want to measure. Do you want to measure how well your students might do at a job interview? Do you want to determine if they would be able to take a college course in English? Do you want to know if your students are able to order lunch at a sit down restaurant? First decide what language skill you want your students to be able to perform, and then design your assessment around that skill.

    Once you have decided on the specific language task you want to measure in your students, think about the language tasks that are necessary to be successful in that situation. For example, if you want your students to be able to fill out a job application form, they will need to be able to read and understand the vocabulary on the form and write the information to fill out the paperwork. If you want your students to be able to take a college level course, it will require skills in several areas. They will need to be able to listen to and comprehend the lecture. They will also have to take appropriate notes. They will need to read and understand the assigned texts. They may need to participate in study group discussions. They will need to read exam questions and respond appropriately. They will also need to write the required papers and complete the required homework assignments. Once you start to break a situational language goal into its component parts, you may be surprised at how many skills your students will need, but once you have that list you will know the skills that you should measure in your communicative assessment.

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    Recreate the Context

    Now that you know the skills you need to assess, it is time to recreate the context for your assessment. How you do this will vary greatly depending on the situation for which you are testing. Perhaps you will give them a job application form as their test. Maybe you will play a recorded lecture and ask your students to take notes, then collect those notes and evaluate them. Whatever you do to recreate the situation for your students, you should pay particular attention to the materials you use to recreate that situation. Be sure that you are using authentic materials, not materials designed for ESL students. For example, you giving a lecture and expecting your students to take notes on the material, even if the material is in a subject area completely separate from English, will not be an effective way to create a communicative assessment. This is because as an ESL teacher, your pronunciation, vocabulary choice, speaking rate and many other factors are different from someone who does not teach English as a second language. Therefore, the ideal in this case would be to invite a guest lecturer into your classroom or have your students sit in on someone else’s lecture and be tested on that material. This way, the speaking is more reflective of what your students would be exposed to in a typical college course. One other factor to keep in mind for designing the context in which the assessment is given is to include the unexpected. In real life situations, you can always expect the unexpected. Including an unexpected element in your assessment makes the situation more realistic and requires your students to think on their feet.

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    The Question of Scoring

    Now that you decided on an area to test your students in and you have laid out how you will create that context, it is time to think about how to score your students’ performances. Communicative testing has suffered much criticism because often the evaluation is subjective. It is up to the person administering the assessment to determine if a student’s performance exceeded expectations, was adequate or was insufficient to warrant a passing grade, and those results are not ones that will please the statistic seekers. Ideally, the second language student would perform on the task as a native speaker would, but even the best teachers would be subjective in that measurement. An excellent tool for taking what could be subjective assessment and making it more objective is a scoring rubric. (If you are unfamiliar with this assessment tool, you can read more about it in How to Evaluate Speaking.) By using this tool, you define levels of performance prior to the assessment itself and then determine which level each student performs at during the assessment.

By walking through each of these steps for creating communicative assessment for your ESL students both you and your students will benefit.

The realistic measure of real language efficacy rather than the ability to perform well at test specific tasks will give both of you a better understanding of what areas you need to focus your efforts on for future language learning. Not only that, with objective scoring methods you can also please those looking for numbers and grades. In this way, you get the best of both worlds for you and your students!


Do you have language skills for which you have designed communicative assessments? If so, tell us about it.

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