Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

Setting Them Up For the Real World: What Should An “Oral Final” Be?


58db2d0e2c1397f19cc3fd65bcffa2daWhat should an oral final look/sound like? I’ve been thinking about this as I continue to try to take away the ‘unnecessary’ – and get to the necessary – in my classroom.  And I’ve thought a lot about what the ‘summative’ part means. This is the ‘last’ oral interaction – especially for some of my juniors (not going to Yr4), and all of my seniors, that they will have in the Target Language. This is a significant moment and I want the legacy of this moment – the impact of it – to be felt by them. I want them to leave my program with the confidence to take an opportunity to use, or further develop, their skills and choose to act upon them. It may be the end of their class journey but I hope it’s not the end of their learning. So I’ve rethought what a summative oral should be and I’ve gone in my thinking from ‘testing what they know’ to ‘establishing what they will hopefully do…’

It Should Mirror A Future Real Life Situation

Our goal in the future is to hopefully have students, in some way, continue their interest in the TL. And what will this most likely involve? Using it – using it in conversation, using it to find out information, using it to get something done. So their summative oral should leave them with the confidence that they have the skills (basic or more developed) to do this. I watched students in our cafeteria – sitting around…talking….interacting with their peers and I thought “This is what I want…”

It Should Capture All You Hope Their Learning Should Be

 For me that means its isn’t memorized, it involves choice in expression and it is communicative. The summative has to allow students to put into use what we have spent the time in class ‘developing’. Providing detailed information, asking when you don’t understand & being able to help others understand, and asking follow-up questions are the three big skills we work on in oral interaction. I want my students to be confident communicators no matter what their level. So the oral summative must draw upon these and be a ‘test’ of these skills. Can they communicate and provide details, can they say when they don’t understand & explain what someone doesn’t understand them and finally can they ask for information using great follow-up questions? This is what I want their summative experience to be.

It Should Not Involve The Teacher

Barring a job interview or maybe a university opportunity the majority of my students will actually use their TL skills in other ways. So why would I insert myself into their conversation? I have also come to realize that, if at all possible, I should not be present for this. Yes – I won’t be there in the future will I? They won’t choose to speak with someone for ‘marks’. So if at all possible I want them to see that they can do this on their own and don’t need a ‘monitor’ or ‘input provider’ or the ‘presence’ of an evaluator to do this.

So what is my intention now in a summative oral? I wrote it on the board for my students to keep in mind:



This year I held my breath, trusted my students, trusted the process we have gone through and sent them off to do all of the above. We had some in-class preparation around the basic prompts but they didn’t know who they would be working with, or ‘how’ this would be done (they thought it would be in front of me). On the day of the oral I talked with them about what I feel the oral should be, then I told them they would be doing this in teams of 4, without me there, with people they knew. Armed with 2 phones (a back up recording) they went in 4’s to empty rooms, turned on the the voice recording memo feature and talked.

In Yr4 they started with a key item that is important to them. A chance to ‘show & tell’ but so much more. Most groups talked for about 25 minutes –  explaining, lots of questions, inclusive of all, and supporting their peers in this. Amazing detail, use of language and most of all – relaxed conversation. Yr3 took some prompts…basic ‘find out about’ designed to allow them to use what we had explored, and talked for about 15+ minutes. No notes, no ‘re-do’s’, no worrying about ‘what if I make an mistake or don’t understand’. I am listening to them now. Yes there are errors, misunderstandings and some are not as confident as others. But I am listening to 4 students converse & share detailed information in a relatively relaxed manner using the TL.  I believe I’m also listening to students who, in the future, are going to take that chance to use the language again.





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  1. #jobdonewell…
    I am so impressed that you sought out a natural conversation for your students and trusted (trust but verify–conversation being recorded) your students. Wow.

  2. Thanks Mary – the ‘natural’ conversation is something we work on all the time and the ‘trust’ was for me – to trust that the process that I had put in place, and the process for how we communicate would hold during a final. I had to trust them to let them do it. If I had been in any way ‘suspicious’ or ‘worried about cheating’ I don’t think it would have worked. A bit of a leap of faith but it worked! (phew!) I will not/won’t do this with all classes – and who knows, maybe it won’t work with next year’s group, but I felt we had built enough of a culture to try it. And I loved the results. Colleen

  3. This is Chris Stolz from Surrey and I have some questions. Your final assessment practice is basiclaly 100% counter to mine so this makes me curious.

    1. What do you mean by “real-life situations”? Is this like, “Johnny you pretend you are the waiter, and Suzie and Baninder, you pretend you are ordering food”? Role-plays? What about real-life situations that do not involve an interlocutor (eg use a bank machine, FB account, etc).

    2. Why should communication not involve the teacher? In the “real world” mentioned in your #1, no student will *ever* have to listen to (and try to decode) flawed and impoverished input from other students: they will be in Japan, or watching/reading quality Japanese. The teacher by definition is the best source of Japanese (or whatever lang. it is) so why would one not assess students’ abilities to respond to complex, multi-dimensional and error-free Japanese? And if “decoding” practice matters– and it does; as Bill VanPatten put it, it is the sine qua non of acquisition– would we not want to use an oral exam to deliver the “last bits” of quality input for students to decode/

    3. Can you provide some task examples for what you expect (and get) in level 1, 2, 3 etc?

  4. Hi Chris
    Thanks for your questions!
    1. I do not ever do role plays or skits – except in 2 ‘skits’ in Yr 1 and 2 (the only ones I do and I have very specific ideas on them As my post says – I wanted the ‘final’ (and this is only the final) to reflect what I hope would be a ‘natural’ experience – 4 kids sitting around shooting the breeze as it were. Again, as I referenced, this is the last chance students will have to speak with each other and I want them to leave feeling that they can use/create the language for themselves. As for ‘real life’ not involving an interlocuter – that would not be part of an ‘speaking/listening’ final – that’s an interpretive experience involving other skills and that would be part of another final evaluation – they get that too.
    2. In the real world they will be using their skills to communicate not just ‘absorb’. I am talking again specifically about a speaking oral summative final here – and my attempt to allow them the opportunity to express themselves. What good is a language if they have not the will or desire to speak? Again this is a summative oral coming after much input/evaluation/speaking/guided work in other situations. As I said in the post this is not about ‘what they know’ but about what they, at the end, ‘can do’. Reading/Watching again are different skills and present their own issues (believe me most manga/anime is not the ‘polished’ language you imagine). This post is about an ‘oral final’. And it isn’t about me guiding, inputting or adding. Its about their ability to ‘communicate’ with others. I’ve seen orals here in my school where the teacher ‘interviews and evaluates’ – and its not the type of final I wanted to have.
    3. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘task’ examples and do you want to know specifically what they are for regular evaluations or a summative? In any oral evaluation the task at hand for me is to communicate information.

    I evaluate some and some are ‘yes’ self-evaluated for their thoughts/feelings on how it went. In Yr4 for regular units we do things from solving a murder mystery to marketing taste-tests, story reading/re-telling and an exploratory travel ‘fair’ about lesser known areas in Japan. In Yr 3 we debate the importance of recycling, explore/give directions (some don’t think this is a skill to be taught but I still do), conduct a school-fair (very key in Japan) and more. In Yr2 we interview (I listen), do one hilarious skit (I have specific views on that – see previous posts), engage in an Activity centre fair and more. Yr 1 does several ‘find out about’ – some in front of me and some recorded, a ‘restaurant’ skit (it’s the only role play like thing I do) a ‘club day’ where they create/promote their club and a ‘seasonal tour’ to Japan. All activities are designed to tap and reinforce key structures but are not scripted and reinforce communication practices including how/what to do when they don’t understand. I have many posts on the blog about circumlocution skills, building confidence in speaking, interpersonal fairs and more…
    I hope that’s helpful!

  5. Do you have a rubric you use for your oral final?

  6. Hi Colleen,

    I really enjoyed your ideas on a ‘new’ kind of oral final! I am a brand new teacher and will be teaching French Immersion high school this fall, so I am on the lookout for new and exciting ideas. What was even more interesting was Chris’ questions and your answers, as he came and spoke to my module at SFU this past school year. I am interested in the different views there are on oral assessment, in this case (but also, all kinds of assessment)!

    I really like how you discussed the need for the oral final to be ‘natural’, but as I’ve learned this year, as soon as we try to recreate a situation, it is no longer natural or real life. However, I love that it is a conversation. I find that presentations and interviews are so common, and as a past French Immersion student in BC, when I graduated, I felt confident in those situations but very nervous in casual-everyday-conversatio-type situations.

    Like Chris, I wondered why the teacher should not be present in the conversation, as the teacher is (probably) the one with the closest to “real”/”first language”/”mother tongue” X language? I wonder why the teacher could not just be part of the conversation as well, so the students could practice listening and responding to that level of language as well as a lower level from the other language learners.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi and thanks for your comments/questions…especially regarding the ‘natural’ and the ability to feel confident in actually using the TL in a casual-everyday type way. I will say that I do very very few interviews and almost no ‘presentations’ that are presentations to the class by a person. How often would this really occur in the ‘real world’ of language use? Interviews typically happen in the Gr9 or 10 years as we set about establishing language – when they have the least amount that they do. Presentations – when they do occur in my classes – are generally done in an ‘interpersonal’ kind of way – that is most often during interpersonal ‘fairs’ where I have info to give to you…I do not believe in the memorized speech thing and that comes across in the minimal (okay 2) skits that I do where students choose their level of engagement/memorization.
    I also note that your comment that any ‘recreated’ situation is not natural. Totally agree. The situation is an evaluation isn’t it – no matter how we do it? What I believe we can do is replicate a ‘situation’ in which they might find themselves actually using the language. And it is my goal, my aim to produce students who, when given the opportunity, will be confident enough to engage with someone in the TL. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told “Sensei, I met a Japanese person and I spoke to them! And it went great! They understood me and we talked!” This also means that we spend a lot of time working on communication skills – follow-up questions, circumlocution, clarifying questions and more. We practice this a lot – including purposely not understanding. It’s why many of my students say that they learned not to be ‘afraid’ of speaking or making an error or not understanding because they know what to do when that happens. My favorite comment was from a Gr12 who said his takeaway from language class was ‘the courage to try’. All of this and more is designed to give the students the skills to handle any level of language that might be thrown at them from any level or type of speaker.
    As for the teacher being present in the summative conversation my question is ‘why’? This is about an evaluation of what they can do – that comes after formative feedback, practice, input, more input and more. Why shouldn’t they speak to their peers without a teacher? Are we not kind of insinuating that they can’t do this on their own? That a teacher has to be part of the equation or otherwise it is not valid? In class, and prior to summatives, they have had lots of chance to respond to targeted language from the teacher and practice/receive formative feedback. Now, I think, get out of their way and see what they can do. The time for ‘input’ is over at this point. I may have interpreted your comment incorrectly on this next point but I also don’t believe that the teacher has to be present in part to help students deal with ‘lower levels’ of language from other students (because they can’t speak at as high a level the teacher? because they may make errors? because they might not be as proficient as other students?). Instead I prefer to hammer home the skills I outlined above so students can speak and interact with fellow students regardless of their level. I have very proficient kids in class, and those who struggle. I place them in groups of mixed ability on purpose and, because ‘facilitates the conversation’ is always part of the rubric they take this in stride. It does not ‘impede’ or ‘affect’ their achievement to work with someone of a different skill level. They are also not restricted in the vocabulary they use (beyond a collective base vocabulary) because I allow them to use any words they want ‘as long as they can get the meaning of the word across’ and from the opposite side that they are to ask a fellow student if they don’t understand something to explain their meaning. We practice this constantly in class.
    As teachers we are all trying to find ways to effectively help kids learn. What unites us, regardless of approaches we choose, is our goal of doing so – we all have their best interests in learning at heart. We are all on a journey as we develop our practice and I respect all for where they are at in this – the more we share, talk and support, the more we move our skills as educators along. Your questions/comments are valuable as they make me think about my practice and reflect on this. Thanks again and if I haven’t answered your question let me know!!

  8. Hi Linda,
    I use my usual ‘oral with checklist’ that is based on work done by Amy Lenord.

    Any Q’s – let me know!

  9. Interesting. My observations (on the most recent comment):

    1. Peer-to-peer communication– during course or on final– seems pointless to me, for two reasons. A: kids do not benefit from or need practice processing junky (peer-generated) input. As Terry Waltz (and Steven Krashen, and Bill VanPatten) have noted, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.” VanPatten (2003, 2012, 2014) has repeatedly said that output is not necessary to develop fluency.

    2. Regarding the “real life situation practice,” a quick look at Wiktionary’s word-frequency lists reveals that such “common sense” practices as being able to talk about, say, food or directions etc, are actually not really a salient part of most L2 use. In Spanish, for example, I don’t think you get a food word until about #800. This means, there are 799 words more-used than even the most basic food word. If we take a s a rule of thumb that about 300 words/year is optimum pace for a language course, what we do when we teach beginners food words is, we are making them use less frequently used vocab before we make them use higher-frequency vocab. If we are preparing them for “the real world,” this seems counterproductive.

    3. I have noticed two schools of thought regarding the “get them ready for the real world” problem of language teaching:

    A) practice specific situations and vocab
    b) focus on high-frequency language

    I used to do A but now do B, because the sine qua non of “real world” language use is *understanding.* If you understand what is being said– and chances are, the more high frequency vocab you acquire, the more you will understand– you feel good, and you will be able to plan your next steps in whatever “situation” requiring the target language you find yourself in. If you can’t say the precise word for ____, no prob: you can always circumlocute, point, etc.

    However, if you have “practiced” your “useful” vocab– ordering food, buying train tickets, asking for wi-fi passwords, etc– and you are in a situation where this vocab does not come up, you are stuck. Not only will you not be able to say what you want, you won’t *understand.*

    So, this is why IMHO focus should be on high-frequency vocab input, and not situation-specific practice and vocab.

    My kids never “practice” talking, or do any specific “situation” vocab…but they do just fine in Mexico or Guatemala, because, once there, the input ramps up so massively (they will hear more Spanish in 30 min in Guatemala than in an hour in even a C.I. class) that they find themselves able to say what is necessary.

    Anyway good conversation.


  10. Thank you for your comments. Like you I prefer to prepare my students not for a practiced situation but rather for a time when they will choose to use their skills to negotiate meaning regardless of whether they have been in that situation before. I may not ‘quote research’ or ‘specific people’ nor am I a ‘this is the only way to go’ kind of teacher. I too spend more time on “B” than A as well and this is evident in my classes – especially with how different they are from more traditional classes. My students often come back and say how much the class helped them in the ‘real world’ especially to be ‘ready for any situation’ and that they felt comfortable knowing they could handle whatever came their way. We are all on this language teaching journey to improve our craft and most importantly have kids use the language – not ‘learn it’. Enjoy the rest of your summer….

  11. If you’re getting a “your class helped,” then 😄😄


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