Examination of Speaking Test Performance in Structured Group Tasks: An Interactional Perspective

Examination of Speaking Test Performance in Structured Group Tasks: An Interactional Perspective

Elif Tokdemir Demirel, Zeynep Baser
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7876-6.ch011
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This chapter explores the use of structured group tasks in the testing of speaking skills in the context of a tertiary level first year speaking course. Participants included undergraduate university students from the department of English translation and interpreting at a state university located in Central Turkey. The structured task used in the study guided students into a group discussion during the speaking exam. The discussions in the exam sessions were video-recorded and transcribed. The transcriptions were analyzed from an interactional perspective. The students were also given an open-ended questionnaire to reveal their opinions about the ins and outs of the speaking test task tried out in the study. The questionnaire consisted of two parts. The first part required students to fill out their demographic information, and the second part inquired students' opinions about the group speaking task. The results of the analysis and questionnaire responses revealed additional opportunities provided by the use of structured tasks in speaking exams.
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Testing speaking often presents a challenge on the part of teachers as there are several variables affecting students' performance, one of which is the task design. There are a number of test types (reading aloud, picture description, oral presentation, interview, role-play, etc.) which might be used in order to test speaking skills, yet a majority of these tests are criticized because of reliability issues or for being too limited to measure a variety of functional and interactional patterns. Testing speaking is a multi-dimensional process and draws on a diverse set of interrelated factors such as learners’ background, language knowledge and skills, general world knowledge, graders’ behavior, environmental conditions, etc. The scoring behavior of graders might also vary, and thus lead to differences in learners’ speaking test results. To illustrate, Polat (2020) investigated the scoring behavior of 6 expert graders. The graders evaluated 24 English language learners’ video recordings including an individual and a pair discussion task for each.

A weakness of many speaking tests is that they focus excessively on the individual performance rather than the student in interaction (Başer, 2011). However, real life speaking is not based on only individual performance. To this end, Bachman & Savignon (1986) criticized the methods for failing to demonstrate the relationships between different skills as well as for failing to recognize the full context of language use and the expanded conception of language proficiency as ‘communicative competence’ (p.381).

Teaching speaking also entails teaching the dynamics of interaction. Some of the skills involved in using talk as interaction involve knowing how to do the following things:

  • Opening and closing conversations

  • Choosing topics

  • Making small-talk

  • Joking

  • Recounting personal incidents and experiences

  • Turn-taking

  • Using adjacency pairs

  • Interrupting

  • Reacting to others

  • Using an appropriate style of speaking (Richards, 2016, p.19).

Although speaking skill encompasses many different aspects as pointed out above, the tasks in speaking tests in English departments at universities often test individual performance of students and are usually in the form of a monologue or narration. And the studies investigating the testing of speaking skills point out that this feature of speaking test design is a weakness. Therefore, regarding the speaking tests carried out in English programs at universities, the following questions arise: Why does testing speaking not include the dynamics of interaction and the relationships between different skills? Why are students tested on their individual speaking performance in the form of a monologue or narration rather than communication?

As an alternative to the testing of speaking with monologue, narration tasks, etc., structured tasks facilitate task performance and are associated with greater fluency (Skehan, 2001). Drawing on from these opinions, in this study, students' speaking skills were tested with a structured task in an English speaking course. The purpose of the study was to find out how closely the conversation in the group exam tasks resemble the features of real-life interaction, and also to find out whether this type of testing speaking skills creates positive attitudes towards testing of speaking, and whether it helps reduce anxiety or not.

To this end, the research questions investigated in the present study are as follows:

  • 1.

    What are students’ perceptions about being evaluated based on their performance within groups as compared to individual performance evaluation in speaking?

  • 2.

    What are the examples of interactional patterns (e.g. turn-taking, sequence organization, turn design and repair) observed with upper-intermediate groups of learners?

  • 3.

    What strategies (e.g. questioning, challenging, summarizing and scaffolding) do upper-intermediate students often attempt to use to maintain the flow of communication within a group?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Structured Group Speaking Task: It is a speaking task in which students are given a list of clear-cut instructions in order to maintain the flow of group discussion.

Jefferson Transcription System: It is a conversation analysis method for annotating speech. It aims to catch not only what is said but also how it is said. For this purpose, it uses familiar keystrokes as symbols in order to indicate the details of speech.

Student-Student Interaction: It is the interaction between students in the classroom environment in which students ask each other questions, discuss, or reflect on a topic. listen to their peers’ opinions, and collaborate to accomplish the task given.

Speaking Anxiety: It is the nervousness that an individual feels during or after speaking, usually while being tested for their oral proficiency.

Videotaping: It is recording visual images and sound using a camera.

Conversational Analysis: It is a method studying human social interactions in verbal or non-verbal conduct.

Testing Speaking: It is testing the oral proficiency of learners using different types of techniques/methods such as interviews, oral presentation, reading aloud, picture story, group discussion, etc.

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