Language testing is closely related to applied linguistics (Wikipedia, 2008), which has recently integrated the use of speech as an aspect of testing to determine the aptitude and proficiency of an individual within a language. This is a portion of testing that has received criticism on many levels, which we will explore in depth to determine the effectiveness of speech testing in language testing as a mandatory portion of the scoring process.
Speech Testing Influences the Scoring Process
Within language testing, one of the most critical components is the spoken evaluation influencing the total scoring, which many people argue is often subjective. However, it is important to understand the validity of spoken testing in the overall scoring process since it will work to create a uniform language in a regional area to eliminate barriers and miscommunications. As an example, El Tiempo recently reported that the competency of the English language among their Colombian university graduates was still subpar, although they had taken numerous exams and courses to increase their skill level and understanding (Columbia Reports, 2010). This recent study cited that only 2.5% of Colombian university graduates had a satisfactory skill level and grasp of the English language. One of the main issues is that Colombian universities educate the students at the minimum European language testing level, which is classified as B1. However, this minimal skill level does not provide them with any actual knowledge of everyday communication within the English language. Nonetheless, the director of language programs for the National University Medellin, Lucia Estrada, disagrees by stating that level B1 was the highest education that they could hope to provide to all undergraduates.
Challenges of Speech Testing
Many practitioners argue that speech testing may be one of the most difficult language skills to evaluate since it gauges a personââ‚¬â„¢s ability to communicate with another person to assess their skill in learning a foreign language. Within the practical portion of the speech testing, it can become expensive and time-consuming since all test candidates cannot be examined in a group but instead need to be evaluated on an individual basis for the most accuracy. For this reason, many larger academic associations avoid speech testing in language testing altogether since it may become too expensive and difficult in the completion of the task. In order for speech to be integrated into language testing, it is important to define the speech of a native language in order to know what to test. This is a complex and involved process where much of the testing interaction is done face-to-face through spoken interviews and conversation within the testing process. Speech in itself is quite interactive, which is why speech testing in language testing works at a face-to-face level to provide accuracy within the language testing scoring process.
It is also key to understand that the knowledge of what speaking a second language actually requires is still incomplete, so the endeavor of speech testing involves thought, empathy, and attention to detail to determine that the test scores are as accurate as possible. Since speech is so interactive, it is a required fundamental for complete language testing as an interview or conversation between two people. Much of the results have to do with the context of the speech, which will ensure the uniformity of all testing evaluations. For that purpose, the scoring of speech testing must be done through human judgment to guarantee effective ranking and scoring. This is what contributes to the testing results to determine that a test taker is not only able to learn but clearly speak a language to exhibit their knowledge thereof.
What many native language speakers understand is that speech used in regular conversation is often dramatically different from written or learned grammar. In many spontaneous conversations, people will speak in fragments or shortened sentences, often times without the use of a verb. For this reason, the best form of language testing focuses on the ability of the test taker to stay on topic, their emphasis on the tone of the sentence, and even their ability to use generic words. With the example of words like "thing", "guys", and "stuff", it is difficult for many test takers to use these types of words with vague meanings. For this reason, the use of vague words or words with numerous meanings is something that is rewarded within the test taking process as evidence of the advanced understanding and skill level of the test taker.
Formal and Conversational Speech
Within speech testing, there are also two types of speech patterns noticed. Talking for conversation encompasses social contact, creating a positive atmosphere, and fluid interaction. This can often be strenuous for non-native speakers, and it is also quite difficult to teach since much of it depends upon the individual's personality. Talking for information is for the sole purpose of transferring facts, and it uses a logical progression, repetition, and comprehension, which is often learned in the classroom setting. For this reason, the candidate may read aloud, repeat sentences, interview, identify pictures, role-play, or use discussion to exhibit their skills in speech testing within the language testing setting.
Speech Testing Requirements
In order to make speech testing a large portion of the language testing scoring process, the competence of the speaker in the native language must be assessed. This includes stress, intonation, and pronunciation to determine phonology, and vocabulary, cohesion, and syntax to dictate accuracy. The fluency can also be graded through the hesitation, repetition, use of inappropriate words, structure of sentences, avoidance of words, and the final cohesion of the test taker. The textual knowledge of the speaker can also be identified through the opening and closing of sentences, taking turns speaking, and using the right type of interactions within conversation. The speaker being tested also needs to know how to use polite wording to avoid creating offense in the foreign language. From there, routine and improvisational skills can also be tested to determine the fluency of the speaker. This can include making descriptions and comparisons for routine skills, such as interviews, meetings, and telephone conversations. Improvisational skills more so include taking turns in a conversation, negotiating, and changing topics.
Test Speaking in IELTS
As an example, within the IELTS test, it can take anywhere from 11 to 14 minutes in an oral interview between the examiner and candidate, which will be recorded. The exam will begin with an introduction and verbal questions in the form of an interview. The test taker will also be asked to speak for several minutes on a certain topic, where they will then participate in a two-way discussion based on questions given by the examiner. This type of speech testing in language testing shows the capability of the test taker to offer personal information, express their opinions, speculate, compare, summarize, contrast, and analyze the information that they are given. This can clearly be used to exhibit the fluency of a candidate based on the rate and continuity of their speech, including the logic they use in forming sentences, the strategies that they take within a discussion, and the cohesion of pronouns and conjunctions that they speak with. As an example, the test taker may be asked to describe a teacher that has influenced their life by speaking of where they met the teacher, what subject the teacher taught, what was different about the teacher, and what type of influence a teacher had on his or her life. This would provide a test taker with the opportunity to speak for up to two minutes at a time using their learned language skills, grammar, vocabulary, and understanding to summarize and exhibit their comprehension in the language.
Speech Testing Qualitative Scoring
Within the standards, qualitative scoring is used to determine the skill of the individual on their tested language. As an example, the score of C2 shows coherence and cohesion in the language, including picking up on intonational and non-verbal cues to have a flow and ease within the speech. C1 scoring still exhibits a good language skill at the academic level with clear and smooth pronunciation, as well as the ability to choose the right phrases in order to contribute to the conversation. B2 speech level can use limited cohesive patterns to contribute to the conversation, initiate conversation, and keep up an even conversation, while B1 has enough language skills to survive in another country, has comprehension, and can initiate limited conversation. Level A2 possesses only the basic patterns of memorized words, simple sentences, and question-and-answer responses, and A1 encompasses the lowest level of language speaking with basic word understanding, limited sentence structures, and numerous pauses within a conversation. The importance of this type of scoring process within speech testing in language testing works to maintain accuracy within the scoring so that each candidate can be evaluated based on their fluency, cohesion, ability, and skill level.
TOEFL is a prime example of changes being made within language testing to advance to the higher standard necessary for academic institutions. TOEFL now includes the categorizing and organizing of sentences, summarizing, listening, and understanding to score the language level for academic purposes (Guardian, 2005). The main significant change made in the testing system is now the use of speaking and writing, where the test taker will have to read, listen, and then speak within two sections. They will also be required to listen and then speak in two following sections. The interesting aspect of this testing process is that the speaking is not scored in a traditional manner but in the method that the test taker is able to process information, summarize, and explain their solution. More so, this test scoring process involves not simply parroting what the test taker has heard to repeat within the testing but gauging and scoring how the test taker reads, comprehends, and processes to speak forth their answer in the test.
This is a highly important advancement in language testing since it measures the ability of comprehension in the individual. At the academic level, this is noteworthy since it can determine the intellectual capacity of a potential student, and it will reveal if the individual is able to do more than simply repeat the language that they are being tested on. In fact, this style of testing takes the scoring to a whole new level, showing the accuracy within the spoken language as a portion of the scoring process. The test taker will be graded on how they process information to be used in the language, instead of only being graded on their accent and pronunciation. This is to show overall competency, which will be revealed in the reflected score as to how the test taker will perform in an academic environment or otherwise.
Language Testing Academic Influence
Language testing has been used for several decades in the academic arena, which can demonstrate the ability of the student, their eligibility for higher education, their proficiency and employment, or even immigration decisions. This is the exact reason that many school curriculums have begun to redesign their uses of language testing in new policies set in place in their curriculum (Cambridge Journals, 2009). This is greatly reflected in the previous example of TOEFL being used at the collegiate level for spoken language testing since this type of scoring can reveal the aptitude and even disability of a specific student. When this style of spoken language testing is used, students of all ages can reveal their grasp and understanding of their native language. Teachers can use the scoring process to better understand the development or lack thereof within the student, making it possible to catch and treat a number of learning disabilities. Instead of having a style of language testing for education with simple repetition and phrasing, spoken language testing that requires comprehension gives greater depth to the testing process so that the student can be evaluated on their understanding, conception, and presentation in the spoken text.
Speech Testing to Detect Disabilities
At the educational level, spoken language testing can be used as a tool to determine the progression and development of children in their learning processes. Some types of spoken language testing can evaluate children that are unintelligible or difficult to understand when talking, where they will name objects that they recognize to detect speech disabilities. This can diagnose disorders and offer rehabilitation for specific cases. Otherwise, a child may be tested for the auditory confirmation of their language, where they will use pictures to differentiate between various types of words, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. These methods of spoken language testing can progress to the vocabulary, concepts, language fundamentals, and even reading. Depending upon the age of the child, much of the testing process will rely upon identifying pictures, and as they progress in their education, reading and comprehension can be integrated. This significance of spoken language testing will further reveal the communication patterns in a child, as well as their ability to express their thoughts and ideas. The combination of speech with language is the act of speaking with expression. Speech can be defined as basic talking, while language is a means of expression (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2000). This is why it is necessary for children at the educational level to be able to comprehend and express the spoken language within the testing system to show that they can grasp and communicate as opposed to only repeating and talking.
These concepts of spoken language testing can be used in a wide variety of environments to streamline communication and functionality. Primarily, these methods for supporting streamlined communication can be used to enhance learning in the classroom setting. This type of speech testing within language testing will give more direct communication within the classroom, where it is often common for students to work in groups or pairs. This will also offer a greater range of interaction within the ability of the test taker, based on much of the evaluation within the speech test that is similar to an interview. When this style of speech testing is used for the scoring process within language testing, it provides a greater accuracy and understanding of the language proficiency of the test taker.
With the rapid advancements being made in all speech testing institutions, the ability to score the cohesion, fluency, understanding, and knowledge of the test taker is clearly exemplified. These tests offer a broad spectrum of speech testing capabilities so that this type of evaluation can be used to benefit the educational and academic setting by making communication clear and streamlined within the classroom. This process overall will prevent the common gap in standard language testing that does not use speech testing, wherein test takers find themselves able to pass the language test based on their head knowledge from their textbooks, yet they are not able to carry on an actual conversation within their language. Within the academic setting, it is highly necessary for all individuals to be able to functionally use the languages that they have learned and not just understand them. That is precisely why speech testing in language testing has been taken to the next level to best grade the fluency of an individual through human interaction. If a test candidates were to only take a written exam, their speech ability assessment would be dramatically limited since their aptitude within conversation, oration, and discussion would have not been tested. This is precisely the reason that most academic institutions are relying upon speech testing within their language testing protocol to provide a more accurate point of view in the entire language testing process. Since language and speech are the fundamentals of education, students would be doing themselves a disservice not to have a full grasp on the spoken portion of the language that they have learned. This will enable them to continue to learn, interact, and best communicate in a number of settings.
Language testing is an age old practice that has scored the development and comprehension of people in a various environments, but most recently, technological advancements have made the addition of spoken language testing even more pivotal in the education and academic field. Although some parties have argued that speech testing in language testing is objective, the evidence is clear that speech testing provides a credible and fundamental balance to the overall process of language testing for academia and education. The rigorous measures and time that is put into the speech testing shows that the test results clearly measure the education level, functionality, and capability of the test taker to determine the skill level and ability that he or she possesses at their language level. This type of insight is a much needed addition to language testing for without the use of speech testing in language testing, the results would be weak, potentially skewed, and open to interpretation.