Teaching to the Test in ESL Class

University student looking up during exam
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There are many issues surrounding the idea of teaching to the test. On the one hand, many feel that teaching makes it more difficult to test student's knowledge because the focus is on the particular test at hand, not on holistic learning. Once learned, students can discard test-based knowledge and then begin to study for the next test. Obviously, this approach doesn't encourage language recycling, which is essential to acquisition. On the other hand, students who are thrown into a test without knowing 'exactly' what's on the test might not know what to study. This presents a conundrum for many teachers: Do I pragmatically meet objectives or do I allow organic learning to take place? 

For the English teacher, luckily, exam results won't lead to success or failure in life as is the case with the SAT, GSAT or other big examinations. For the most part, we can concentrate on producing and measuring the relative success or failure of each student. For example, I find giving students grades based on project work to be a highly accurate means of testing. 

Unfortunately, many modern students have become accustomed to a test-based mode of study. In some cases, students expect us to give them clearly-defined tests. This is especially true when teaching grammar classes

However, at times, students don't do very well on these tests. This in part is due to the fact that students are often not familiar with the importance of directions. Students are already nervous about their English and jump right into an exercise without clearly following the directions. Of course, understanding directions in English is part of the language acquisition process. However, it sometimes gets in the way. 

For this reason, when giving any kind of standard assessment test, I like to "teach to the test" by providing a quick mock test in a review session leading up to a test. Especially at ​lower levels, this type of review will help students focus on their true abilities because they'll understand what's expected of them. 

Example Review Quiz to Help Teach to the Test

Here is an example review quiz I provided before a big grammar final. The test focuses on the present perfect, as well as difference in usage between past simple and the present perfect. You'll find notes and tips listed below the example quiz. 

Part 1 – Circle the correct helping verb.

1.    Have / has he had lunch yet?
2.    Have / has they played soccer today?
3.    Have / has you eaten sushi?

Part 2 – Fill in the blank with the PRESENT PERFECT verb.

1.    Fred (play / +) __________________ tennis many times.
2.    She (have / -) __________________ breakfast this morning.
3.    Peter and I (eat / +) _______________ fish this week. 

Part 3 – Make a present perfect QUESTION with this answer.

1. Q ______________________________________________
A: No, I haven’t seen Tom today.
2. Q _______________________________________________
A: Yes, they have flown to Chicago.
3. Q ________________________________________________
A: Yes, she’s worked for Google. 

Part 4 – Write the correct V3 (past participle) in the blank.

played        quit        driven        bought

1.    I haven’t ___________ a Lamborghini in my life.
2.    She has _________ smoking cigarettes to be healthier. 
3.    They’ve ____________ soccer two times this week.
4.    I have _______________ three books today. 

Part 5 – Verb forms: Fill in the blanks with the correct form of the verb. 

Verb 1    Verb 2    Verb 3

Part 6 – Write ‘for’ or ‘since’ to complete the sentences. 

1.    I have lived in Portland _____ twenty years.
2.    She’s studied piano _________ 2004.
3.    They’ve cooked Italian food _______ they were teenagers.
4.    My friends have worked in that company _________ a long, long time. 
Part 7 – Answer each question with a complete sentence.

1. How long have you spoken English?
A: _______________________ for _________.

2. How long have you played soccer?
A: _______________________ since ___________.

3. How long have you known him?
A: ____________________________ for ___________. 

Part 8 – Write the correct form of the verb. Choose simple past or present perfect. 

1.    She ___________(go) to New York three years ago.
2.    I __________________ (smoke) cigarettes for ten years.
3.    He _______________ (enjoy / -) the movie yesterday.
4.    _________ you __________ (eat) sushi before? 

Part 9. Circle the correct answer.

1. Fred _________ cake yesterday afternoon.

a. has eaten
b. eated
c. ate
d. was ate

2. I __________ at PELA for two months.

a. study
b. am studying
c. have study
d. have studied 

Part 10 – Fill in the blanks in these conversations. Use present perfect or simple past. 

Peter: Have you ever ________ (buy) a car?
Susan: Yes, I have.
Peter: Cool! What car ___________ you _________ (buy)
Susan: I _________ (buy) a Mercedes last year. 

Teaching to the Test Tips

  • Project each section onto a whiteboard to make sure that each student actually sees what's expected.
  • Ask students to come up and complete individual sections of the quiz. Have other students state whether they have completed the exercise correctly or not. 
  • On the whiteboard, circle keywords in directions to make sure that students take notice of specific instructions.
  • For the first question in each exercise, ask a student to complete the question on the whiteboard. Ask the student to explain why they answered in that manner. 
  • Pay special attention to time expressions. Students tend to forget how important these are. For example, in exercise six students need to decide whether 'for' or 'since' should be used. Ask each student why they chose 'for' or 'since'. 
  • On multiple choice questions, ask students why each incorrect answer is incorrect. 
  • Don't worry about making a review quiz the same length as the actual test. Keep it short as the focus is on understanding 'how' to take the test. 
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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "Teaching to the Test in ESL Class." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/teaching-to-the-test-in-esl-class-4116840. Beare, Kenneth. (2020, August 26). Teaching to the Test in ESL Class. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/teaching-to-the-test-in-esl-class-4116840 Beare, Kenneth. "Teaching to the Test in ESL Class." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/teaching-to-the-test-in-esl-class-4116840 (accessed March 31, 2023).