Testing By Any Other Name …

Retired Academic Director of the ELS Language Center
New York City

Nuance In Language

          When I started teaching ESL, although I thought I had accumulated enough knowledge to go into the classroom, I was not sure my college professors would have approved of my performance – not because I was not ready to reconstruct retroactively the best moments of our methodology classes. What I was looking for was a collection of every conceivable piece of information that would allow me to recover bits and pieces from every nook of my memory (and add my imagination) to communicate with my students in a way that they would really benefit from our exchange of ideas.
          I was trying to find the best way to get ready for my first classroom assignments, but then came the frightening realization that I could not find all this information in a book. Deep down in my heart I deemed myself unprepared for the uphill battle, and indeed I was groping in the dark with no palpable solution in sight.
          One thing I knew for certain: that somewhere along the way I was going to collect, from my own experience, what I thought would be best for my students. The intensity and scope of my perceptions led me nowhere, only to realize that Toni Morrison was right when she said that if you can’t find the book you want to read, you must write it yourself.
          There is something special about teaching ESL, and you can detect it as soon as you walk into the classroom and meet your students. This kind of special is called MAGIC. It is difficult to describe it, but you can feel it, you can sense it, and you can experience it alone or together with your students. ESL is tinged with magic and rich in mysteries. The magic of the classroom activities and the style of each academic skill create an aura of magic with consequences beyond the walls of the building and after the class hours.
          One very important thing I remember from my college days was the idea that students don’t want to hear the word “test” and I had to give this concept careful consideration when I designed the project around TIPS, A Guidebook for Teaching Excellence in ESL. We generally avoid using this word but at the same time assign tasks to verify how much ESL students learn and how they enhance their knowledge.

  1. We test their ability to change parts of speech, for example:
    To attend – Can you make it into a noun?
    Victory – Can you change it into an adjective?
    Vision – Can you change it into a verb? (p. 90)
  2. Students are asked to discover the difference between verbs in context, for example:
    To say vs. to tell (p. 105) 
  3. We test the students’ understanding of idiomatic expressions by asking them to guess or compare them with similar set phrases used in their native languages:
    Busy as a bee
    The lion’s share
    Strictly for the birds (
    p. 165)
  4. Reading for meaning is a tough challenge, but with proper guidance students go from deciphering the letters to understanding the meaning of the passage. (p. 205)
  5. Why do we ask our students to paraphrase themselves?
    On a regular basis, sometimes several times a day, we paraphrase ourselves when we speak because we need to make sure that our communication is clear and that we convey the right message to our audience. The students should do the same when they speak and when they write, and the best practical exercise would be a quick paraphrase. (p. 221)

Dealing with ESL students means dealing with students from various cultures. Teachers should be aware of the differences and nuances of the language character and make sure they approach their students with respect and understanding. They know we test them and they wouldn’t like it any other way.


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