Published 3rd May 2019


Tests may be the bane of our students’ lives but they are a necessary part of language learning. They are necessary in order for our students to be able to assess their knowledge and comprehension of a particular topic. They are necessary for teachers to identify which aspects of their courses need more attention. They are necessary for external bodies to ascertain the level of a particular student. This blogs discusses communicative language testing.

What is the problem with traditional testing?

However, testing in language learning classrooms usually leaves a lot to be desired. There are reasons students don’t enjoy traditional tests. In fact, sometimes even teachers don’t enjoy tests. The problem with tests is that they are often dry, uninspiring and boring. They are generally written tests of random sentences which the students need to complete, correct or respond to.

When you think about it, there is no need for this. The goal of all of our English as a Foreign Language classrooms is communication. Testing our students’ grammatical and vocabulary knowledge out of context does not adequately test their communicative competence. What is needed is a truly communicative test.

What is a communicative test?

A communicative test is one which requires the students to complete an authentic task – in other words, a task which is a realistic reflection of a learner’s experiences in the outside world. As a result, the test may include a reading task, a writing task, and a speaking task. This will mean it will be a test of both receptive skills and productive skills, both recognition of language and production of language.

Unlike traditional tests, there is no particular focus on any grammar point or vocabulary item. The aim of the test is the successful completion of the task, irrespective of how that is achieved. The students’ language is still assessed but rather on intelligibility than on grammatical accuracy.

The major benefit of a communicative test is that they are adaptable to any age and level. Students will be able to see the relevance of a test like this because they can see themselves carrying out similar tasks in the real world. Plus, teachers will have a better idea of their students’ overall communicative ability.

Examples of communicative language tests

  • Deciding with a friend which movie to watch
  • Ordering food at a restaurant
  • Giving suggestions to a friend who has asked for advice
  • Giving a PowerPoint presentation in a business meeting
  • Asking for information over the phone

Why doesn’t everyone use communicative tests?

Of course there are drawbacks to carrying out communicative tests, just as there are to carrying out traditional tests. Communicative tests may be more difficult for teachers to assess as there are no clear correct or incorrect answers as there are with True/False questions, for example. Instead the teacher will need to use their experience and common sense to assess each student on the extent to which they have achieved their communicative aim.

They can also be more difficult to set up as the teacher will need to come up with a relevant test for their students. Plus, there are time constraints as the teacher will need to witness each student carrying out the task in order to be able to assess each individual.

However, though these tests may have their own set of challenges, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. The next time you need to do a test with your students, why not try out a communicative test and see what the washback is.