A Technique for Vocabulary-Based Oral Testing

Steve Redford Prefectural, University of Kumamoto


  • Key Words: Vocabulary, Speaking, Testing
  • Learner English Level:All
  • Learner Maturity Level:All
  • Preparation Time:15 minutes
  • Activity Time:Varies

When teaching vocabulary, we need to make our students understand that learning a word implies much more than merely memorizing a definition. Knowing a word conpletely implies knowing its derivations, syntactic behavior, collocations, frequency, and associations,as well as knowing where it is most likely to be encountered and being able to recognize and produce it correctly in speech and writing. A good first step in developing students' concept of word knowledge--and their word knowledge itself--is to introduce activities that require students to produce original sentences using target vocabulary items--activities that also help students locate suitable contexts for their sentences. In my experience in Japan, I have found that the activity that best gets the attention of students is the test--and it is with this in mind that I have begun using a vocabulary-based oral testing system at the end of each semester.


Preparation for the test is quite simple. Through the semester, students have studied a set of vocabulary items and have had opportunities to use these items in conversation. A few weeks before the exam, I give the students an abbreviated list of words, usually about twenty items. To prepare for the test, students must think of one original question using each word on the study list. In other words, they have to prepare a total of twenty questions. Students are instructed to make questions that are appropriate to ask their classmates, and which can serve as starting points for simple conversations. For example, for the vocabulary item attend, students might make questions such as "Did you attend your seminar yesterday? or "How often do you attend your English class?"

Students come to my office in groups of four. I have prepared word cards for each vocabulary item. I simply choose a card, show it to Student A, and ask him or her to have a short conversation with one of the three other students in his or her group. Below is an example of an actual conversation.


Teacher: (showing Yukiko a card with expect written on it) Why don't you ask Kanna something?
Yukiko: What do you expect for your future?
Kanna: I expect happy marriage in my future.
Yukiko: Who... man do you want to marry?
Kanna: I want to have a dependable husband. How about you?
Yukiko: Me, I want to... kindly man. I want to have marriage with a kindly man.... Sweet-faced man.... Tall man and ... How many children do you have?
Yukiko: I want to have two children, boy and girl. How about you? Kanna: I want to have three. Yukiko: Three?
Kanna: Boy, boy, girl.
Teacher: (showing another card to Kanna) Please have a conversation with Hisako.


In a period of twenty minutes, each of the four students has a chance to participate in anywhere from four to six of these mini-conversations. Students do not know who their conversation partner will be until the moment the conversation begins, and thus they have to think on their feet. (Of course, as a group of four, they can get together and make lengthy preparations for each contingency so that they are not forced to think on their feet, but in completing such preparation, they have certainly worked hard with the target items and advanced their ability.)

The teacher's role during the test is merely to initiate the action and to stop conversations when students have sufficiently demonstrated that they can talk on a topic or when a conversation has stalled. The teacher can also push a conversation along with a quick question, but the teacher's speaking participation should be kept to a minimum. Of course, the teacher has to evaluate the students' performances. I grade students on a combination of accuracy (especially in asking the conversation-starting questions intelligible volume. It is very important that students understand the nature of the test and the teacher's grading system from the very beginning of the semester so that they can get the most out of in-class conversation with the words throughout the semester. In my class, a student's homework assignment often involves making one original question using one target word, and they know very well that a good thirty or forty minutes of the next class will be spent engaging in question-based mini-conversations with their classmates.


This testing activity works best, I think, with students who have a basic conversational ability (though not necessarily a perfect basic ability) and who need to expand the range of topics they can talk about, but who are not quite ready for full-fledged discussion and debate of complicated issues. Students I use it with have usually already completed some false-beginner text, such as Fifty-Fifty (Prentice Hall Regents). For teachers interested in learning more about how to choose vocabulary items to teach or the nature of word knowledge, I suggest the resources listed below under references.