Final Modern Language Exams – What real speaking goal?

After I gave a  recent presentation, a teacher talked to me about her June final which the department chair made up.  This teacher stressed that she believes in communication and she wants to prepare her students to communicate with people from the target language.

However, the department final  has a speaking component in which students wrote out a conversation, memorized the conversation, and said the memorized lines. She remembers that last year during the final speaking her students made comments to their partners such as “I can’t remember what we wrote,”  “Say your lines,” and “What comes next?”  All those comments reinforced that the final was not a speaking final but a recital or saying of memorized lines. It had nothing to do with the give and take of a real life conversation.

She remembers that no student displayed any emotion  while speaking except for stress and frustration during the conversation even though they said happy lines (I really like to …) and sad lines (I am sorry). They mechanically delivered their memorized conversation.

She said that the speaking final was so different than the real life conversations her students had in her beginning level class. Often when her students talked about a situation, the students would laugh or smile (That’s my favorite show, too); they would ask more in-depth questions as they heard an answer that interested them (Why do you like the show?)

One of many possibilities is to move to final like a  modified OPI in which someone asks students some general questions and some probing questions.  Another possibility is for two students to spontaneously talk about a previously unknown topic or situation.

What does your speaking final show about your real goals for your students speaking in a world language? has many activities that allow students to interact in the language.

At, I have a book, Improving Foreign Language Speaking Through Formative Assessment.

Speaking Final- What Criteria?

Modern language courses usually include a speaking final. That final can take many forms such as a  teacher asks a student a question, students work in pairs on a topic, etc.

Even more varied is how the speaking final is assessed such as a holistic score, an analytic rubric with numerous components, or a checklist.

The more important question is “What is the speaking being assessed against?”  Does the teacher judge the students based on the teacher’s concept of he or she individually think good speaking is?  Are there state or national standards or proficiencies that the students are being assessed against? Without a definite standard or proficiency, the speaking assessment measures very little.

One reliable technique is for the teacher to ask each question based on the NCSSFL-ACTFL Interpersonal Communication Can-Do statements. The teacher asks one or two questions for each section of the Can-Do at the Novice and the Mid level.. For example, a teacher asks for Novice Low “I can answer a few questions”- “Do you prefer water or soda? and “When is your Spanish class?”.The teacher bases . The teacher structures the questions going from the lowest level of Novice Low to the highest level of Novice Mid (assuming the class reached that level).  The teacher uses these national proficiencies to measure at what level of the proficiencies the students are.

The teacher has a reliable and valid speaking final. The students’ score on the speaking final represents the highest level of their speaking proficiency based on national proficiencies.

What does your speaking final measure?

At,  I have 30+ ready-to-use Spanish speaking activities and numerous Spanish culture activities.

At, I have two ebooks, Modern Language Proficiency: Can-Do Strategies and 90 Mobile Learning Modern Language Activities


Create a modern language final using Can-Do Statements

At this time of the year many college  modern language teachers are preparing their students for finals. Some finals test the textbook while others test certain language skills.

Many modern language finals reveal very little about the actual proficiency of the students. The final in one school district or college probably differs in content from the final in another school district and from state to state. Such finals may not represent language proficiency but represent translation skills, discrete vocabulary learning, discrete non-contextual grammar learning at a low level and random cultural facts. Modern language teachers benefit from a national standard to use so they can truly evaluate their students’ proficiency against other students’ proficiencies.The NCSSFL-ACTFLCan-Do statements serve such a purpose.

When teachers compare their finals to the Can-Do statements for their level, they may discover that they are testing on items that ACTFL says students should not be proficient in. For example, a beginning college class may have a  past tense, the preterite, questions on the final. Students in a beginning level may only reach Novice High and talking in various time frames does not show up until Intermediate High; therefore, students cannot be tested on the preterite. On the other hand, students may be tested at a lower level than ACTFL states. When students read in the target language, they are expected to respond in the target language. ACTFL does not include “translate into English” in any of the reading Can-Do statements.

Also, teachers may find that their final does not focus on language functions as NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements do.  A Can-Do based final represents real-life language use, not isolated discrete statements. The final reflects the various language functions for that proficiency level. For example, at the Novice Mid level, can students describe their family and friends? At the Novice High, can students complete map directions based on an actual map?

Does your modern language final show what your students Can-Do according to NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements?  Or is it a grammar-vocabulary tests of discrete items?

At,  I have 30+ ready-to-use activities (about 24 for Spanish and 6 for all Modern Language) to develop student’s spontaneous speaking starting with highly structured or scaffolded speaking for beginning students. Students work in pairs to communicate and they usually assess each other in a formative assessment manner.

My ebook, Modern Language Proficiency: Can-Do Strategies is available at  It contain many activities to help students advance through the Can-Do statements with half the activities focusing on interpersonal communication/ speaking.

At, there are four modern language culture inquiry activities and one Spanish culture inquiry activity.  My ebook, 90 Mobile Learning Modern Language Activities ebook contains many communicative and cultural activities for students to don on their smartphone or tablet,



Analyzing a modern language test

There are numerous ways to analyze a modern language test.

1. Identify what different “skills” are being tested such as  speaking, listening, reading, writing, culture, vocabulary and grammar.  How many points are allocated to each? How many points are there cumulatively in each skill area? What does that show about the test’s priorities?  If listening is a total of 20 points but grammar is 50 points, then the test is predominantly a grammar test. If grammar and vocabulary outweight the other skills than the test is definitely not communicative.

2. Identify how each part is scored.  For example, if students have to write out an answer and each answer is worth eight points, how many points are given for answering the question (content), for vocabulary, and for grammar?  If grammar is five points, content two and vocabulary one, then the test evaluates grammar, not the communication of  ideas.

3. How much of the test is contextual or situational based as opposed to discrete unrelated  items? Test items such as He  _____ (to work),  She ______(to cook) are only connected by being verb conjugations. These same items could be used in a realistic conversation in which students complete a conversation by conjugating the verbs, sometimes in statements and sometimes in questions.

4, Do students answer questions that relate to their own lives? Often students have a writing part on a test but do those questions allow them to tell about their own lives? Are stipulations put on the writing such as include three -er verbs, include a place, and include an occupation so that the writing is forced? Are students encouraged to think on their feet by answering questions for which they did not prepare or is the writing part a writing out of a memorized writing?

5. How much of the test involves the students  reading and writing items in sections that are not labeled as the reading or writing category? Listening comprehension can be based on a picture with multiple choice short answers such as “How many computers are in the room?  A-two B-twenty  ….” or listening comprehension can be tested by giving the students four full sentences from which to select.  The second  method changes the listening comprehension to include a reading component. Students can write out numbers without having to write out a full sentence, especially if points are taken off for grammar writing points. Each category should be as purely that skill as possible without depending on other skills otherwise the teachers can not identify what the results signify.  In addition, reading and writing are the least used skills in normal communication while listening and speaking can count for up to 70% of normal communication. Does the test represent that real life percentage?

6. What percentage of the test is in English? How many questions involve translation from English to the modern language? Prompts for writing, in English, such as “tell your age, where you live” cause the students to translate. Likewise, a vocabulary exercise such as ” tall =, ”  relies on translation. Is there a modern langage reading passage that students answer in  English?  The greater the test percentage is in English, the less the students use the  target language.

7. Does the test assess the the most common verbs and the most common vocabulary according to the 100 most common verbs and 100 most common words lists? Does the test focus on everyday common use of the language or on specific irregularities, exceptions, or non-critical words? Likewise, does the test evaluate the most common language functions like  “I would like…”, “I’m sorry”,  and “Really”? If students were in the targe language country, they would use many of these functions each day.

8. What does the test score tell the teachers about the students’ ability to communicate in the language? How closely does the test reflect the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Proficiency statements?  Teachers can label each test section with the specific proficiency statement.

What does your test analysis reveal?

At,  I have 30+ ready-to-use activities (about 24 for Spanish and 6 for all Modern Language) to develop student’s spontaneous speaking starting with highly structured or scaffolded speaking. Students work in pairs to communicate and they usually assess each other in a formative assessment manner.

My ebook, Modern Language Proficiency: Can-Do Strategies is available at  It contain many activities to help students advance through the Can-Do statements with half the activities focusing on interpersonal communication/ speaking.

At, there are four modern language culture inquiry activities and one Spanish culture inquiry activity.  My ebook, 90 Mobile Learning Modern Language Activities ebook contains many communicative and cultural activities,

Modern Language Speaking Final: From Memorized to Spontaneous

I have talked with many modern  language teachers about their final  and, specifically, about the speaking part of the final.  They all agree that speaking is important and  that speaking needs to be tested.  Sometimes, they give the students a few possible topics, give them a week or a few days to prepare, then, in class, the teacher picks one of the  topics for the students to talk about.  The students think about the topic, write out the sentences, memorize the sentences and  recite the sentences during the speaking final.

However, this type of speaking final contradicts actual speaking. Since during the speaking final,  the students recite what they have previously written,  the exercise is really a writing exercise.   Secondly, in no normal target language conversation, does someone walk up to a person, say give me a topic, and, then, return the  next week to talk about that topic. In a real conversation  when the conversation turns to a new topic, the people  begin to instantly speak about it. There is no time delay in talking about a new topic.  Thirdly, this type of speaking resembles presentational speaking and not interpersonal speaking.  The students just recite  their sentences, they do not  really interact with the other student. Usually their conversation becomes a memorized dialogue. They do not show language  fluency but they do show the ability to memorize.

Some suggestions
–  Have students speak spontaneously about a topic.  They may have a list of 30 topics such as restaurant or 30 situations such as  problems in the classroom  but they do not know which topic they will have.  Students can practice talking about any topic by asking  and answering  questions about any topic.
– Have students talk based on a picture. They do not describe the picture but use it as a context for their speaking. For example, they see a picture of a soccer game  and pretend to be a player in the game. Or one student interviews another student who knows about the situation.

Let’s make speaking assessments include the speaking for the final to be ones in which students speak spontaneously to more closely represent real-life speaking.


My Spanish spontaneous speaking activities (25+) includes Modified Speed Dating (Students ask partner a question from a card-whole class), Structured Speaking (Students substitute in or select words to communicate in pairs), Role Playing (Students talk as people in pictures or drawings from 2-4 people), Speaking Mats (Can talk using a wide variety of nouns, verbs and adjectives to express their ideas- pairs or small group), Spontaneous Speaking (based on visuals or topics in pairs), and Grammar speaking games (pairs or small group). Available for a nominal fee at Teacherspayteachers: I have a series of modern language visual stories (the beach, the city, school, etc.) for two students to role play; the restaurant role play involves four students. Can use in any language since there are just visuals, no words.

My book, Improving Foreign Language Speaking Through Formative Assessment, and my book, Formative Assessment, Responding to Students, are available at