Assessment and testing (both formal and formative) are important for:

  • checking that a group of students is making progress in line with the course objectives and expected outcomes
  • ensuring that each student in the group is progressing, to the best of their ability and in line with individual targets
  • providing feedback to the teacher on his or her teaching methods and approaches
  • providing the students with a framework within which they themselves can check their level of achievement
  • reporting student achievement within generally-recognised frameworks, which are transferable between educational systems and countries.

Each academic institution will have its own system of continuous/formative assessment and/or end-of-course examinations.

In addition to this, an increasing number of universities opt to describe student achievement, and the levels of their courses, in terms of universally recognised frameworks, for example, the common standards for examinations drawn up by the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE).

Another way of recording levels in language learning is the Council of Europe’s European Language Portfolio (ELP), developed to support learner autonomy and inter-cultural awareness, and to provide learners with a way of recording their language learning achievements and experience. The ELP website has a self-assessment tool for 20 languages spoken in Central and Eastern Europe. This is a good (and fun) way for students to gain an idea of their language competence (and other related skills) and to create a life-long record of their language learning which can then be presented to academic institutions, employers and others.

The ELP assesses learner competence using the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This framework is now probably the most widespread and, in spite of its name, is gaining credibility in many non-European countries of the world.  Many UK universities already express achievement in terms of CEFR levels, or are planning to do so in the near future. For example, a CEELBAS-funded study was carried out at UCL SSEES to identify levels of achievement on completion of a range of courses taught.

These levels are recognised internationally, so if your teaching group includes students from outside the UK (and, particularly, from other EU countries), they are likely to be familiar with the CEFR, and may even have language qualifications from their home country which have been expressed in terms of the CEFR levels. Such students are usually keen to know what level they will achieve as an outcome of the course you are teaching, so it is a good idea:

  • either to find out if the course is described, in the institution’s official documents, in terms of CEFR levels
  • or, if CEFR levels are not officially assigned, to discuss, with colleagues and line managers, what the estimated level of the course is; even if you can only let students have this information informally, it will provide a focus and context for their learning.


As language teachers, we are constantly assessing our students’ progress through highly interactive classes and frequent homework assignments. We also set tests for our students, both for diagnostic purposes and as formal course milestones. Additionally, most course tutors will be expected to set end-of-year or end-of-course examinations, in which students need to be successful to progress to the next stage of their degree or to complete their degree.

Most of the tasks in a test or examination will be based on authentic texts, and selecting appropriate texts for each task is crucial in ensuring that the assessment reflects the course content and that students are presented with a fair test of their language competence. Finding suitable texts, and turning them into suitable test/examination tasks, can be very time-consuming, so it is a good idea to:

  • start searching for suitable texts as soon as possible
  • build up a bank of possible texts (as you read books, browse websites, get given leaflets etc.)
  • organise potential texts by their linguistic complexity and the type of task they might be suitable for.

Selecting texts for examinations

Apart from the level of language compexity, which texts to use will depend on a number of considerations. With respect to lexical complexity, texts should, clearly, reflect the vocabulary covered in class, with the addition of a few items whose meaning students are expected to work out or guess, in context, as these are also important skills. If the use of a dictionary is allowed, it would be acceptable to include some additional vocabulary, although students need to be taught not to be over-reliant on dictionaries.

Texts for summary tasks should have a logical and/or hierarchical overall structure with a clear division into paragraphs or sections, each with a subsidiary theme. A text should not be too dense and should contain some amplification, illustration and/or exemplification of the main points, to allow students to prioritise what they include in their summary.

Texts for translation from the language being taught into English should be cohesive and tightly constructed grammatically. They should contain little or no repetition or redundancy of content, a relatively low incidence of proper nouns and numerals, a good range of tenses and grammatical structure (e.g. modals, relative clauses, conjunctions, adverbial phrases etc.) and a range of abstract and concrete, but not specialised, vocabulary (reflecting areas covered in class).

For reading comprehension many types of text may be suitable, but they must allow candidates to demonstrate that they can extract specific facts and opinions, draw conclusions and make inferences from a text containing a wide range of material. Additionally, the type of text to be selected will depend on whether comprehension is tested in English or in the other language. Compiling questions in the latter requires a different approach, and they are usually more time-consuming to write.

Texts for listening comprehension should not be too dense, to allow students time to absorb and understand the information being presented (at a speaking pace which is not too slow), and to complete the task, whether this consists of questions in English or the other language.

The use of translation from English into the language being taught, whether for teaching or assessment, continues to be a matter for discussion. If this is taught and examined, it should, in the main, be a reflection of material that students have covered, as it is most likely to be used to test grammar and vocabulary, rather than high-quality translation into a language which the students are learning.

So, will the text you have chosen will be fit for purpose? The best way of finding out is to do the task yourself, and to imagine how long this will take the students under test/examination conditions. Any problems will soon become evident!

Reporting achievement

Each academic institution will have its own way of monitoring the fairness and appropriacy of the examination process, involving a first marker (normally the course teacher), a second internal marker (a colleague from the same institution) and an external examiner (normally a specialist from the same field from another university). All this will ensure that final results reflect achievement, and that standards of teaching have been maintained.

Additionally, achievement may be reported in other terms. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has already been discussed. Many UK universities also use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). This is a standard framework for comparing the attainment and performance of students of higher education across the European Union and other collaborating European countries. ECTS credits are awarded for successful completion of study. One academic year corresponds to 60 ECTS credits (equivalent to 1500–1800 hours of study in total). This is used to facilitate transfer from one university to another and progression between courses throughout the EU and other participating countries.

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