Tests for people of any age can seem a threat or, at the very least, an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Testing children is even more fraught with sensitivities.

Young learner testing - methodology article
Lynda Taylor, Assistant Director, Research & Validation, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations

A poor experience early on could influence ongoing attitudes to learning itself. But testing doesn't have to be the 'bump' in the flow of classroom life.

  • Testing what we teach
  • Making tests relevant
  • Task-based testing
  • Making tests motivating
  • Reducing test anxiety

Testing what we teach
Background research and work on developing the Cambridge ESOL Young Learners English (YLE) Tests has shown how tests can be a useful focus of classroom activity, help shape and support the work done by teachers, and provide a genuinely positive experience that helps smooth the way forward for learning.

If tests and other assessment procedures for younger learners are to be useful, then they should, for example:

  • Take account of children's and young people's cognitive and social development
  • Be consistent with good practice in primary and secondary school teaching;
  • Support language use with clear contexts and accessible tasks
  • Reward children for what they do know, not penalise them for what they don't
  • Be relevant and look interesting (by making use of colour, graphics, technology)
  • Report meaningful results in order to encourage further learning.

Making tests relevant
Children relate to the world quite differently from adults. The first language skills to develop are normally in speaking and listening, and that is where the emphasis in testing children should be. Topic areas should be chosen which are relevant to children's lives - such as school, food, sports and animals - and all language should be used in an everyday context, matching the way in which young learners process language.

  • Any writing activity in testing is probably best limited to the word / phrase (enabling skills) level since young children have generally not yet developed the imaginative and organisational skills needed to produce extended writing. Older children and young teenagers will still benefit from a focus on listening and speaking skills, but they will also need to develop their literacy skills in the second language, so a focus on reading, and to a lesser degree writing, will be important. But whether the focus is on spoken or written language, it is still the emphasis on meaning in context rather than on language form which is preferable at any age. This means designing assessment tasks which test the meaningful use of language in clear, relevant, accessible contexts.

Task-based testing
If a task- or project-based approach is already used for language learning in the classroom, then this can be relatively easily reflected in approaches to assessment.

  • The communicative task-based approach is especially valuable since young people are motivated by and tend to perform best on tasks which directly reflect their own experiences of teaching/learning. For younger children it could be a simple listening task matching pictures to what they hear; or a simple oral task which involves choosing a present for a friend's birthday from a number of different possibilities. For young teenagers it might be a writing task in which they write a short review of their favourite TV programme for a school newsletter.
  • Tasks must also be appropriate to young learners' level of cognitive development, as some cognitive and linguistic strategies tend to be acquired later than others. For example, children only demonstrate 'search and stop' strategies around age 11; this means that scanning tasks are probably best used with older children (they are not included in the Cambridge YLE tests for 7-12-year-olds). In reading/listening comprehension, younger children sometimes have difficulty understanding who is the agent in a passive construction; and even young teenagers are not always confident at following reference chains through a text so this has implications for text selection and the comprehension questions that are devised. Task instructions also need to be easily understood and should not require extensive processing or memory abilities.

Making tests motivating
If material is presented in a lively and attractive manner, consistent with the age and background of the test-takers, then they are more likely to engage positively with a test and to perform to their best. It also helps to use tasks which are 'active' or 'game-like', e.g. colouring activities. Computer-based tasks offer the appeal of games through various facilities such as: click and drag, highlight, scroll, rearrange, art palette. Computers can also make the teaching and assessment of writing skills much more fun because learners can exploit word processing features, such as boxes, font size, pictures, etc, to enhance the presentational quality of their work. They may also be more motivated if their work is put on display.

Reducing test anxiety
If tasks are relatively brief and narrowly focused then test formats can include frequent changes of activity or task-type; this also has the advantage of giving learners multiple 'fresh starts' and avoids them becoming anxious or demotivated if a particular task doesn't seem to be going well. Test anxiety can also be reduced if children know clearly what is expected of them and can perceive a measure of fun in the activity. In the Cambridge YLE tests we wanted to create a low-anxiety situation, free from risk of confusion or fear of failure. Even the reporting of results can be designed as a positive experience to provide encouragement. The Cambridge YLE tests were designed so that no-one should 'fail', and everyone receives some credit for having taken part in the test.

Through continual improvement of testing for young learners, teachers are being given more support for their classroom work, and children given more confidence and enjoyment . In this way, testing can become the impetus rather than the brakes on learning. 

Originally published: http://www.cambridgeesol.org/teach/yle/

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight