My current teaching centre differs from others I have worked at in that there is no ‘exit test’ at the end of the course.

Instead, we assess students on the four skills at various points during the term. There are usually two speaking assessments – one in the style of a mini presentation, and the other as a pair or small group dialogue.

These have the benefits of allowing the teacher to see and hear the students put their language to use in a relevant context. However, there are disadvantages to conducting the assessments in this way as well. One is time – sixteen students doing presentations of 3-4 minutes can take up an entire lesson. Some students, even in the pair/group task, also get nervous about ‘performing’ in front of their peers, which has a negative effect on the assessed outcome.

Some teachers respond to this by setting the class self-study tasks while they listen to individual students/groups outside the class. This takes the pressure off for some students but the time issue is still there.

Over the last year, I have been experimenting with a different way of administering the speaking assessments – by using iPads. The tasks remain the same, and I still introduce the topic and highlight the necessary target language in the same way as before but I use a voice recording app to make the process of listening to each student easier and more in-depth.

I usually introduce the iPads during the practice stage. By this point the learners have been familiarised with the topic and the task requirements. They have listened to and analysed a model answer and have perhaps made notes for their own response. I then give them the iPads (showing the how to use the app if necessary) and give them 15 minutes to record themselves, listen back, and make any adjustments they feel are necessary.

This has the great benefit of encouraging self-assessment as the learners analyse their own output and think about how they could say something differently or more accurately. It is also a pressure-free way to practice. There is no teacher looming over their shoulder for starters! They also practice properly. I have witnessed students many times silently staring at their notes practicing ‘in their head’. The iPads allow even the shier students to rehearse in full.

Depending on the class and the task, I may then have the class do the speaking assessment ‘live’ in front of the class (they are sometimes keen to hear each other’s presentations for example), or I may use the iPads for the assessed version as well.

In this case, I again give the students a time limit to make their recording. When they are ready, they return the iPad to me and I listen to it after class.

The main advantage of doing the speaking assessments this way is that I can analyse my students’ language in depth. I have the option to listen multiple times and make carefully considered decisions about the assessment score (in contrast to the on the spot decisions required when listening live). I can also extract specific examples of learner language to use in the follow-up lesson, whether those be frequent errors for a correction activity and feedback or excellent examples of language use to highlight.

The recordings also allow me to add to my knowledge of each individual learner, especially for pronunciation. By analysing the recordings, I find I am able to pinpoint specific areas for improvement with how my students speak, rather than give a general rating for intelligibility as usually happens when assessing them on the spot. This gives me a strong focus for future pronunciation work in class.

As ever, there are some drawbacks to using iPads for speaking assessment, which need to be considered before implementing such an idea. First of all, there is the question of digital literacy. Using a voice recording app sounds simple but I have encountered students who had never handled an iPad before and needed time and assistance to get used to it. Introducing iPads for non-assessed activities and using them for practice both help address this issue as the students can get used to the devices before using them for the assessment.

Secondly, there are practical considerations. If I have sixteen students doing this in class at the same time, the recordings will not be clear. It is therefore important to check that there are enough quiet spaces available for students to use when recording. I was lucky last term in that I had morning classes and there were generally a few classrooms free at that time and the corridors were generally empty. However, at peak times, there would have been less free space and more noise around the centre.

This also raises the question of supervision. I trust my students not to cheat but there could be an issue of individuals reading directly from notes. If doing assessment in this way with young learners, we would also have to take measures to ensure they were not left unsupervised for child protection and safety reasons.

Finally, we have to consider time. Although using iPads to record students speaking allows for a more efficient use of time in class, it also means the teacher needs to devote more time to reviewing the assessments out of class. When assessing students ‘live,’ the rubrics and scores can be completed on the spot. Reviewing the recordings can take more than an hour of the teacher’s time.

However, I think we should view this as time well spent. This means the assessment is not just about producing a score but is also about providing our learners with constructive and targeted feedback.

For the students, it also makes the assessment more process focused. They are encouraged to record themselves, listen, self-assess, make changes, and repeat the cycle. This encourages them to engage in reflection on their own language output and develop a degree of autonomy. It removes the pressure of having one chance to ‘get it right’ by offering them a chance to improve and submit their best work. It makes the assessment a learning process and that should always be our main goal whatever we do in class.

About David

David Dodgson, originally from the UK, works for the British Council in Bahrain as an ICT coordinator. He has also worked in Turkey and Gabon, gaining experience with young learners, adults, exam preparation and EAL classes. He runs two blogs, davedodgson.com, which is about his teaching and learning experiences, and eltsandbox, which focuses on using digital games as authentic materials for language learning.

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