Testing Spoken Language, A Handbook of Oral Testing Techniques, Nic Underhill, Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers, 1987


Image source: Pixabay

Summary notes

The most important influence on the development of language testing has been the legacy of psychometrics, in particular intelligence testing. A lot of time was devoted into proving there was a single measurable attribute called general intelligence. Psychometrics wanted to be a science. The aspects of human behavior that could be predicted and measured were emphasized. The multiple-choice test offered the learner no opportunity to behave as an individual. Individualism was described as ‘variance,’ and a lot of effort was put into reducing the amount of variance a test produces.

Expectations – Every culture values education highly, but does so in different ways.


  • interviewer
  • interlocutor – A person whose job is to help the learner to speak, but who is not required to assess him/her.
  • assessor
  • marker or rater
  • authentic
  • objective
  • stimulus
  • validity – Does the test measure what it’s supposed to?
  • reliability – Does the test give consistent results?
  • evaluate – Find out if the test is working.
  • moderate – To compare the way different assessors award marks and to reduce discrepancies.


Tests can be used to ask four basic kinds of question around:

  • proficiency
  • placement
  • diagnosis
  • achievement

Who does a learner speak to in a test?

  • Learner <> Interviewer/Assessor
  • Learner <> Interlocutor
  • Learner <> Learner
  • Learner <> Group

Chapter 3 presents a nice list of task types that could be given in oral exams.

A marking key or marking protocol sames time and uncertainty by specifying in advance, as far as possible, how markers should approach the marking of each question or task.

Performance criteria might include: Length of utterances; complexity; speed; flexibility; accuracy; appropriacy; independence; repetition; hesitation.

Mark categories could be given a weighting.

Few learners are ‘typical.’ It may be helpful to look for a range, not a point on a scale.

Additive marking is where the assessor has prepared a list of features to listen out for during the test. She awards a mark for each of these features that the learner produces correctly, and adds these marks to give the score. This is also known as an incremental mark system; the learner starts with a score of zero and earns each mark, one by one.

Subtractive marking is where the assessor subtracts one mark from a total for each mistake the learner makes, down to a minimum of zero.

One thought on “Testing Spoken Language, A Handbook of Oral Testing Techniques, Nic Underhill, Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers, 1987

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s