My ambivalent view on grammar and tests

20151010_113033_4_bestshotEvery student will probably say that tests suck. I’d add that a badly designed grammar test is a nightmare – not just for the students but for the teacher as well. If it is you who designed the test (thus you can’t blame the bloody coursebook), you’re in for a bit of self-flagellation.

The reason why a grammar test can turn into a nightmare is because English grammar is really tricky and your knowledge of it will never be completely satisfactory. I mean, if you pay attention to all the renowned educators who criticize the way we teach English, especially the grammar, you can end up pretty confused. The good news is that if you have a problem, you can always turn to your PLN. This is fantastic except that it only make things worse at times. Who should you be actually listening to – the native speakers, the non-native speakers, the Americans or the Australians?

I think I’m very flexible and always open to new ideas. But I also know that at some point, my students will expect a definite answer from me. Sure, I can always say that things are not clear-cut and that it’s more important how people actually use the language rather than what’s in the book, but not all students are ready to accept a vague or an equivocal explanation. I don’t really want to pretend I have all the answers up my sleeve, but I’m sometimes fed up with the there-is-really-no-correct-answer cliché. If you tell your students that there is no correct answer, what’s the point in testing them at all?

Anyway, the other day I created one of those darned tests. It was a regular grammar gap fill, and I hoped it would be quick to complete and correct. It was not too difficult but challenging enough to show me if my B1/B2 students still struggle with past tenses. One of the sentences was

John …………………. (revise) for a test while Anne ……………………………. (listen) to music. 

I automatically assumed that the students will come up with John was revising for a test while Anne was listening to music since that was the structure they were familiar with. I should mention that when correcting tests, I always start with those students who are likely to get a good result. If one of them comes up with an unexpected answer, I always sit up and take notice. However, if a weaker student produces the same unexpected answer, things become even more complicated.

If a good student comes up with something unusual, yet correct, you may automatically come to believe that he or she must have seen it somewhere, presumably in some kind of authentic context, e.g. in an English book, magazine, movie, on the internet, etc. And you probably feel very proud that your students do some extra work outside of the regular lessons. Alternatively, you may assume that your students expressed a higher level of understanding and produced something very logical, which you forgot to take into consideration when designing the test.

However, if a weak student comes up with the same, unusual, grammatical structure, you presume (and, let’s be honest, you’re often right) that he or she chose the option due to a lack of knowledge. So, you know that two different students produced identical answers, which, however, doesn’t prove they both have the same knowledge of the subject matter. You would probably agree that your subjective feeling is totally worthless in such a case; you can’t subtract or add points just because of your assumptions.

So, here are a few examples of what my students (both proficient and the less proficient ones) came up with during the test:

  1. John was revising for a test while Anne was listening to music.
  2. John revised for a test while Anne listened to music.
  3. John revised for a test while Anne was listening to music.
  4. John was revising for a test while Anne listened to music.

20151010_112939If you check a grammar book, you’ll see that #1 is a classic example of how the past continuous is taught and, as I said, this is what I expected my students to produce. Number 2 is correct too, but I  had never told my students about this particular option. I found an example of #2 in Advanced Grammar in Use, which makes me conclude that that it’s considered a ‘more advanced’ structure for expressing the past. Number 3 looks OK to me, and the students probably meant to emphasize that one of the activities (listening) was in progress whereas the other one was a completed activity. I have a problem with number 4, though, despite the fact that there’s no reason to dismiss the sentence as grammatically incorrect.

The trouble is that #4 was produced by a rather weak student, who, overall, got a very low score. This, to me, is an implication that he isn’t very confident in using past tenses, or, in more ‘communicative’ terms, he’s not very good at talking about the past.

To conclude my post, I’d say that grammar tests like the one I just described do suck and I’ll be very careful when designing something similar next time. Anyway, my students will probably consider me a schizophrenic once I hand out the corrected tests on Monday because they’ll see how many times I’d changed my mind before I came up with the final score. 🙂

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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

4 thoughts on “My ambivalent view on grammar and tests”

  1. It seems that no matter how careful I am, students can find other correct answers! I have learned to read what they have and decide if it sounds right or not. But even with that, I sometimes change my mind. I often end up changing the grades numerous times, too.

    And as for #4, it sounds fine to me as a native speaker from the US!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw that question on Facebook… although you used different pronouns, prompting someone to comment that they couldn’t do both things at once. 🙂 I think this happens to all of us, like Nancy said, no matter how careful we are. I also think that at B1-B2 I’d be really pleased not to see things like “John were revising”, “John was reviseing” (although I’d probably dock half a point for that), or “John was revised”, and would accept all the combinations your students came up with.

    Incidentally, I usually start correcting exam papers from the very last page and work my way to the beginning, partly because I don’t want to see the students’ names until I’m done. I like to think I wouldn’t be more lenient towards the good students just because they’re usually good, but I prefer not to be tempted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very observant, Vedrana. I did change the pronouns when I posted the question on Facebook, and I did so accidentally. I didn’t notice until my son pointed it out. I fully realize that it might slightly change one’s perspective on the problem. However, the fact that different people would accept different alternatives is still valid.

      I totally agree with you when you say that there are certain mistakes a B1-B2 student should definitely avoid in their writing. The trouble is that the test in question was designed to show if my students can make a distinction between the past simple and past continuous, so I wasn’t planning to simply accept anything correct. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best way to test the knowledge of past tenses.

      I like your approach to correcting exam papers. The trouble is that as soon as I see the handwriting, I immediately recognize whose test it is, at least with students whom I’ve known for a long time.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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