Language testing: looking back and looking forward

Barry O'Sullivan takes a look at language testing, all the way from Imperial China to the present day global industry, and considers where testing might be going in the future. 2011.

Barry O’Sullivan provides us with a concise and enjoyable potted history of testing and assessment in English language teaching.

Before you watch

Consider how you think assessment has evolved over the ages. What do you think has changed? What has stayed the same? What do you think are the main developments in testing and assessment for the 21st century?


Further reading

Barry O’Sullivan is an expert in English language assessment. He has written two books, Issues in Business English Testing and Modelling Performance in Tests of Spoken Language. He works with ministries, universities and examination boards around the world to design effective assessment systems.

Guide your students on how to reflect on what they are learning (or nor successfully learning) in their lessons. At the end of your next lessons, ask your students these three questions:

  • What did you learn today?
  • What can you do now in English that you couldn’t do before?
  • What do you need more practice on?

Make this reflection a routine part of your teaching. It need only take five minutes. This will:

  • help learners to become more conscious of their progress and allow them to articulate what else they need to learn English more effectively
  • provide you, as the teacher, with useful information to plan your lessons around what your students need and what motivates them to learn.

Record the information you collect and reflect on how you adapt your lesson planning in response to it. After a month or two, report to your colleagues what you found out.

  1. Ensure that as a teacher you know all about the main principles and practices of testing and assessment, relevant to the 21st century. To get started read the ‘Further Reading’ resources suggested on this page.
  2. If possible in your school, ensure you know what tests and assessment your students will need to do before you start teaching the course. Avoid the ‘teach to test’ approach, but do aim to adequately cover all the aspects of the assessment content to best prepare your learners.
  3. Don’t wait till the end of the course to find out how well your students have learned what they needed to learn to pass the end of course test. Prioritise formative (developmental) assessment during your course. 
  4. Strive to take the fear out of assessments for students. What you want is to strike a balance between incentivising students to do well in a test, while minimising the fear factor. That is easier said than done, of course!
  5. Vary your assessment tools to cater for various learning styles and levels of proficiency – use quizzes, journals, diaries, competitions, role plays, games and so on, as well as the more formal test-types.

Consider the following teacher’s points of view:

  • ‘Students work harder for end of course (summative) tests.’
  • ‘Formative assessment is too time-consuming.’
  • ‘Formative assessment processes still don’t guarantee students success at end of term/course tests.’

Do you agree with any of these statements? What are your viewpoints on formative and summative assessment?

Share your ideas with us by using the comments section below.

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Submitted by billozero on Fri, 08/05/2011 - 10:27


Excellent treatment of a subject a lot of us take for granted!

Submitted by d.messias on Sun, 08/28/2011 - 13:12


Very useful for teachers and it must be watched for all them, only to look over some aspects in their teaches.

Submitted by eqbal on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 05:57


It's a marvelous lecture.  It is always very difficult to quit the beaten tracks and tread on the new path compatible with the emerging trends.  This lecture succesfully brings a chnage in the English language teachers by making a comparison between the past and present techniques of planning.

Submitted by Michael O Connor on Mon, 05/28/2012 - 17:10


A fantastic presentation, lots of good ideas and references, and a very motivating speaker. “There is more to life than an international test” would make a great tatoo !  Thanks.

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