The Internet TESL Journal

A Method for Oral Testing in University English Programs at Korean Universities

David B. Kent
dbkent [at]
Inha University (Incheon. South Korea)

This article describes a method that EFL teachers can employ when conducting oral tests with their students.

Exam Objectives

Primary Objective: To assess the oral skill level of students in a pre-planned communicative context, as well as testing listening comprehension through question/answer based tasks.

Secondary Objective: To allow students to expand their use of language, centered on a theme of their own interest, and engage in oral communication on a familiar topic covered by the class syllabus.

Exam Approach

Students sign up for the exam, in class, one week prior to the testing date. Students should be allowed to select their own partner, and come in pairs to the exam. As a result students will feel more comfortable, and relaxed, during the testing process.

The exam structure is "semi-free". Students should be informed that chapter headings of the course syllabus provide the topics for the exam, and that they can discuss any one area of relevance to each topic. Typical topics covered by course syllabuses may include the following: around the community, eating, education and school life, friends and family, the global village, health, homes, love and dating, nature, as well as work and lifestyles. As example areas of relevance to school life, the instructor may provide the following suggestions of topic areas: activities and membership of school clubs, participation and impressions of the university festival, and comparison between high school and university life. Students should then be tested for approximately 10 minutes per pair.

Exam Method

Initially, students should engage in a prepared conversation for around 5 minutes. At this point the examination criteria, see below, should be checked by the instructor at relevant points of the students' conversation. As students had pre-planned their conversations, they should be expected to exhibit a high degree of familiarity with the topic material.

Secondly, after students have completed their paired conversation, the instructor should ask several questions of each student. The points of evaluation for each student can then be further completed or re-evaluated as necessary. At this phase of the test the instructors approach should be based upon the selected topic of the student pair. For example, if students elect to discuss a topic such as their hometown then the instructors line of questioning may revolve around asking the students to persuade the instructor that it is a good place for a few days holiday. This phase of testing should be planned to take around 5 minutes.

Exam Critique

Overall, students should be able to complete a pre-planned conversation of the appropriate length for the test conditions. Instructors may find that some pairs of Korean students will read all of their pre-planned conversation, even though the evaluation is not a reading test. As a disincentive for doing this, the instructor may inform students that 50% of their exam score will be deducted if they read their prepared conversations. As appropriate, instructor's may allow students to bring notes, or memory cards, along with them to the test.

Further, familiarity with the topic material selected by students should allow them to adequately respond to the questions asked by the instructor in the second phase of testing. Even those students who never speak in class should be able to interact, to a higher or lesser degree, with the instructor at an appropriate level for the line of questioning.

The downside to this kind of testing in large class environments where an instructor has more than 200 students, and up to 300 students to test, is that both students and instructors feel rushed especially with only 10 minutes per exam. Therefore, times should not be indicated on the exam sign-up sheet, only number order should be provided. In this way, students know they can take as long as they need, as the next pair will enter only after they complete the exam. This approach will see students generally keep to the set 5 minutes for their prepared conversation, some going over and some going under. The instructor can the control the line of questioning, to see the pair finish up on schedule.

Exam Evaluation Criteria

Fluency of Speech
1 2 3 4 5
Poor Below average Average Above average Excellent
Grammar Use
1 2 3 4 5
Poor Below average Average Above average Excellent
Listening Comprehension
1 2 3 4 5
Poor Below average Average Above average Excellent
1 2 3 4 5
Poor Below average Average Above average Excellent
Vocabulary Appropriateness and Complexity
1 2 3 4 5
Poor Below average Average Above average Excellent



Examination Criteria Explained

Evaluation should be conducted when students engage in their prepared conversations. Revision of the instructor's evaluation can be conducted, if necessary, during the question/answer phase of the exam. For each point of evaluation, students are graded on a Likert-type scale (1 being poor, through to 5 being excellent). The comments section of the exam evaluation sheet can be used to record points of feedback for each student. For example, problematic points of pronunciation, or grammar mistakes continuously employed by the student throughout the duration of the test.

Fluency of Speech: This point of evaluation should be based upon the smoothness of speech, not speed, and take into account the normal use of hesitancy in conversation. If students cease their conversation to giggle, or if they have memorized their conversation and can not continue by relying upon their inherent communication skills then this should reflect in a lower rating. Students who speak efficiently, and without awkwardness, should in turn be granted a higher rating.

Grammar Use: It is unrealistic to expect that any Korean EFL student will come to an exam and speak without any grammar problems; emphasis should therefore be placed on being able to understand the students communicative intent even if grammar errors are present in sentence structures. However, continual use of the same grammar errors by a student, such as the use of simple past for all past tense terms, should reflect in a lower rating. Alternatively, those students who are able to recognize that they had made a grammar error, and correct it during conversation, should be provided a higher rating.

Listening Comprehension: This phase of evaluation is initially tested during the prepared conversation section of the exam. As some students will not understand what their partners are saying. In some cases, Korean students will remain silent and wait for their partner to repeat their statement, and this should reflect in a lower rating. At other times a student may ask for clarification, or ask their partner to repeat what they had said, and this should reflect in a higher rating. Further more, this section of evaluation should be applied in the question/answer tasks of the exam. Some students may not understand the instructor's question, even after rewording, whereas other students will understand the same question immediately.

Pronunciation: As native English speakers possess a high degree of tolerance to ambiguity accent is not considered a viable point of exam evaluation, except where it hinders communicative understanding in the case of radically influencing pronunciation. In situations where continual mispronunciation occurs, or understanding is lost due to incorrect pronunciation of terminology, students should be given a lower rating. Alternatively, if students correct their mispronunciation, or recognize their mispronunciation and attempt to correct it throughout the exam, then this should reflect in a higher rating.

Vocabulary Appropriateness and Complexity: Depending on the student choice of topic, certain terms or vocabulary items can be selected from the course materials and incorporated within student conversational presentations. If students use higher level vocabulary, and select terms taught from the textbook then they should receive a higher rating. If students employ very simple vocabulary terms for a complex topic, such as health, then this should reflect in a lower rating.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VII, No. 6, June 2001