ESL Placement Exams & Level Checks

by Tom
(Dayton Ohio USA)

Q. Please recommend good way to assess a new student's English ability and comprehension?

A. This will depend on the types of courses (general classes, conversation classes, exam classes etc), the ages of the students (children, young adult, adult) and the requirements of your school or college. Usually a mixture of oral and written tests work well. You will need to tailor the placement tests to your particular situation. I've taken placement test to include all kinds of level checks: including oral and written tests.

For children you need more patience, as shyness can be a problem. Pictures and toys can take the child's attention away from themselves and make the job easier. If the child is extremely shy, a written test can be very useful.

Oral ESL Placement Tests
When designing questions for this kind of test it's a good idea to have the course books in front of you. Choose the main grammar points and devise questions suitable for your particular students (taking into account their age, interests etc).

I don't recommend any special test of the students' vocabulary - although I'm a strong supporter of teaching vocabulary. In a placement test, testing a student's vocabulary level can be misleading. They may have excellent vocabulary in areas you don't test. Of course, if you can hear that they lack the most basic vocabulary, then that should be taken into account.

With practice you'll find that the ability to answer certain questions fully usually indicates a certain level has been achieved. For example, if a student answers the first few - putting at ease questions - fluently, I would usually ask a more advanced question and see how they handle it. There's no need to go through a long list of questions, in most cases.

So I might ask, "What would you do if you saw a ghost?" Many students could answer this in some way, but if a student could answer fluently and with good grammar, then I'd suspect they might be intermediate level or higher. I might then ask a harder question. For example, "What did you use to do when you were a child that you don't do anymore?" If they could answer this, then I'd move straight to the upper-intermediate/advanced section of my test questions.

Of course, you'll often be asking much more basic questions than these, but throwing out a more difficult question (if the student appears quite fluent) can save you time. If they stare at you blankly, then you know the student is most likely pre-intermediate or lower (which for many teachers are the most common levels).

You don't need too many questions, but you do need a couple of questions for each grammar point. A good answer to one question (e.g. Have you ever eaten frogs' legs? To test the present perfect for experience) indicates understanding. A partial answer is not enough to indicate the student is familiar with the question. It's easy for a student to say "yes," without really understanding.

However, failure to answer - especially with children - does not mean they don't understand. It may be that the student is shy, not listening or has poor listening. In the latter case they may still be suitable for a certain class, if they are familiar with the tense, but simply need more work on their listening. This situation shows the value of having a written test too.

If you regularly give oral level checks to children, it's useful to have some photocopies of pictures you can use when you ask questions. It's much easier to ask "Which do you prefer?" or "Can he swim?" when you have pictures at hand. At least, you will find it useful to have a couple of course books with you when you do the oral level check.

Written ESL Placement Tests
At a university level, these are often multiple choice questions and essays. However, for most language schools, simpler tests work just as well.

Written tests combined with oral level checks will give you a fuller picture of the student's level. For children, I'd recommend a printed sheet with some questions and a space for the students to answer. With younger children it's a good idea to include pictures. Use the kind of written activities you would in the class or for homework.

As with the oral level checks, make sure you cover a variety of grammar structures. Simple multiple choice questions are also useful.You don't actually have to set many questions to judge a student's ability to write - unless they are advanced level students ready to enter university. Then an essay or paragraph about a topic will give you a very good idea about their writing ability.

You might want to test their reading as well, perhaps with a short comprehension exercise. However, an oral level check and simple written test is good enough for most situations, particularly with children.

Bear in mind that some students - I'm thinking more about high school/university level - have excellent speaking, but poor writing ability.


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