By Mayra Yaranga
A typical situation in language lessons involves speaking activities, such as dialogues or monologues. The students finish the activity and the teacher gives marks. Unfortunately, it seems all too common that the marks are based on the students’ accuracy in grammar and perhaps propriety in pronunciation. This situation is echoed on students’ attitudes: if they notice that they make a number of grammar mistakes, they typically self-rate their speaking skills as ‘terrible.’
Assessing speaking skills should go beyond checking for grammar and pronunciation accuracy. In fact, I would like to argue that the most important element is often neglected: content. While language system use is relatively easy to observe and errors can be spotted without much effort, focusing on how students develop, support their ideas and use language functions in a way relevant to the task requires a great deal of effort and attention from teachers throughout the entire activity. The complexity involved is evidenced in the very detailed criteria used to assess speaking skills in English language examinations, which include assessing content. If teachers become familiar with such criteria, they should be able to assess their students more fairly and more comprehensively.
Students also need to know what is expected of them in speaking activities. This involves debunking some of the popular myths they hold about language learning. For instance, they need to understand that good pronunciation does not involve imitating a foreign accent, but producing sounds and utterances comprehensible enough for effective communication. They also need to understand that grammar mistakes occur, but could be overlooked to some degree if the message is effectively conveyed.
Finally, I believe that no speaking activity is fully developed if there is no feedback given at the end. For example, if students are asked to have dialogues in pairs to be later performed in front of the class, they need to be given feedback that goes beyond grammar and lexis, but focuses on the content of the conversation, how natural the interaction was, if body language was culturally appropriate, among other aspects. If students are aware of the criteria to be used in their assessment and the teacher provides feedback on such aspects, the activity cycle can be said to have ended successfully.
What do YOU think?
Which criteria do you use to assess your students’ speaking skills?
Mayra Yaranga (1985) has completed Doctorate studies in Education at UNIFÉ;Master’s Degree in Media, Culture and Identity from Roehampton University (London) revalidated by PUCP, a Bachelor’s Degree in Education - UPCH and the Professional Title of Licenciada - IPNM. Currently she works as IELTS trainer, Cambridge Oral Examiner and Member of the Research Area for Universidad del Pacifico Language Centre. She is also ESP coordinator and Pre-University Centre Director at UNIFÉ.