Vocab tests. The mere mention of them makes me shudder. For many students, they’re attached to negative emotions – stress, anxiety, and a sense of imminent failure no matter how much they try to remember.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Assessing students’ vocabulary doesn’t have to be this way. In my years as a TEFL teacher, getting licensed, and experimenting with different techniques, I’ve learned the best methods to test vocabulary effectively and without stressing out my students.

For the best vocabulary assessment in EFL/ESL, use suitable images, provide realistic context, take advantage of technology such as automated flashcard apps, and apply some light gamification. Spoken vocabulary is just as important as written.

Knowing what words your students have internalised is vital both before and after teaching. To learn more about teaching vocabulary, check out my article Best Method to Improve EFL/ESL Students’ Vocabulary: 9 Steps.

Why traditional vocab tests are outdated and ineffective

When talking about traditional vocab tests, I’m referring to something most people will remember from their time at school – a list of words in the target language which you need to translate to English, or vice versa.

Looking back, I shake my head. It’s not that I hated them. In fact, I was quite good at remembering the words… for the test. But that’s the problem. I learned them in a contrived situation which had little connection to reality.

And for those who didn’t do well, it was a constant source of discouragement.

The problem is, the ability to recall vocabulary in a written form for a specific matching activity is a narrow aspect of learning a new language. It doesn’t consider how well you can apply that word. Or even pronounce it. It favours those who remember words in one way, and discourages those whose minds process information differently.

To truly assess EFL/ESL students’ vocabulary, we need to take a broader view.

Images provide powerful connections

The visual part of the brain operates at a deeper and faster level than written language (which has only existed for around 5,000 years).

Many students struggle with written words but are much more confident with images. And even for those who aren’t extremely visual, pictures provide another neural connection to strengthen their memory. This makes for more accurate assessment of all students.

Image by Ermal Tahiri from Pixabay

Not only this, but images avoid the effects of linguistic interference. They allow the total removal of the students’ native language, which helps streamline the recall process.

I’ve written a whole article on this topic, so go check that out: How to Use Images for Deep Vocab Memorisation in EFL/ESL.

Context is vital for testing true understanding

As I mentioned earlier, I used to ace school vocabulary tests without knowing the true meaning of half the words – I just remembered the sequences of letters.

Applying a word in the correct context means a student has active vocabulary. This is stronger than passive vocabulary, which is just being able to recognise the meaning when heard or read.

For communication, both are important, and students don’t need to be able to use every word actively. However, traditional tests only assess passive vocab.

Instead of the answer to a vocab question being the word on its own, have students say or write a sentence in which they apply the word correctly. And this shouldn’t be a parroted, pre-learned sentence. It should be something natural which they come up with in the moment.

Spoken vocabulary is equally important as written

Another thing neglected by traditional vocab tests is whether the student can actually say the word. Are they able to pronounce it, or just spell it? We need to test both.

And, like I mentioned earlier, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Often, students who struggle with written words and perfect spelling have strengths in pronunciation and differentiating sounds.

Let them show they know the word orally as well as on paper.

Spaced repetition flashcard apps automate everything

One of the major benefits of the traditional vocab test is how easy it is to implement. The teacher only needs to write a list of words, print them off and mark them when done (or even get the students to mark their own work).

Providing images, context, and spoken understanding takes much more time and effort.

Or does it?

Modern technology has changed the game. Nowadays, we have spaced repetition flashcard apps which have done wonders for vocab learning (and assessment).

Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

On my favourite app, Anki, you can create a flashcard with the image, the word in English, a definition (if appropriate), fill-in-the-blank questions, as well as spelling input. For each word, this takes a few seconds and you can duplicate the flashcards for each student.

What’s more, it provides continuous assessment on a weekly or daily basis, meaning students don’t just forget the words after the test.

I take 5-10 minutes with each student every week to go through their vocabulary, with them saying the word in English, using it in a sentence, or giving me a definition. It’s revolutionised their learning.

To learn how to set up Anki and use it in your classroom, read my post on the topic: Supercharge EFL/ESL Vocab With Spaced Repetition (Anki).

Gamification keeps interest up over the long term

Simply doing something other than a standard vocab test might prove exciting enough to begin with. But over time, interest can wane.

To keep students motivated, I apply light gamification methods.

Gamification is the use of game elements in education – things like points, badges, leaderboards, progress bars, etc.

Be careful, though. I avoid competitive game elements like leaderboards, as they provoke cheating and often discourage the students who don’t perform as well.

Instead, the best technique I use is this score card I made – either shared between members of a group, or for individuals.

They get two points for a correct word, and one point for a near-miss. Over the course of a year (or longer), they can see the progress they’ve made, and all of them love advancing up the levels.

For an in-depth guide to gamification, read my article Gamification in EFL/ESL: Guide to motivating students.

Bonus: Soft assessment allows stress-free learning

Soft assessment is when you gauge how much a student knows through observation and tailored lessons, rather than giving them a test.

It can take the form of productive activities like writing and speaking, or with carefully crafted reading and listening exercises. It can just be paying attention to how students speak and write.

Conclusion: A practical example of a spoken vocab test

Let’s say your students are learning ten new words for sports. Instead of a traditional vocab test, get them doing a role-play in pairs where one student goes to the local sports centre and asks what types of sports classes are available.

The conversation could go:

STUDENT A: Hi there, I want to start a new sport. Are there ice-skating lessons here at the sports centre?
STUDENT B: Good morning. No, sorry, we don’t have an ice rink. But if you’re interested in roller-skating, we have classes on Mondays.
STUDENT A: No, I don’t want to do roller-skating. How about squash? I’d like to learn a racket sport.
STUDENT B: Sure! We have squash classes. We also do badminton and table tennis lessons at the weekends.

If you provide images to Student A of sports they should ask about, and to Student B sports available in the sports centre, you can be sure they’ll talk about the vocab you want to test.

For more on why role play is a fantastic activity, I’ve written a whole post on it: Why All EFL/ESL Teachers Should Use Role Play Activities.

So we’ve just use images, context, and spoken language all in one short activity. This doubles up as a speaking test, too!

Of course, with a class of 30, you’ll need to allocate time for each pair of students. But think about how much better this is than a piece of paper with some words on, not only for assessment, but for your students’ continued learning.

I hope this article has given you the ideas and incentive to assess your students’ vocabulary in a positive way. If you want to learn more about teaching vocabulary, don’t miss my Best Method to Improve EFL/ESL Students’ Vocabulary: 9 Steps.

For all the information you could ever possibly want on teaching EFL/ESL vocab, take a look at all my articles on the topic.
BIG OVERALL GUIDE: Best Method to Improve EFL/ESL Students’ Vocabulary: 9 Steps
Why EFL/ESL Students Forget Vocab: Causes and Solutions
How to Elicit Vocabulary in EFL/ESL: 7 Effective Activities
What Vocab Should You Teach in EFL/ESL: Organic acquisition
How to Use Images for Deep Vocab Memorisation in EFL/ESL
How to Use Gestures to Embed Vocab in EFL/ESL + 2 Games
How to Test EFL/ESL Vocabulary: Best assessment methods
Sounds and Audio Hooks for Lasting Memorisation in EFL/ESL
How to Teach Vocab in EFL/ESL with Memorable Moments
Supercharge EFL/ESL Vocab With Spaced Repetition (Anki)
How to Make Vocab Last Forever: Reinforcing connections
9 High Energy EFL/ESL Games for Boosting Vocabulary

Similar Posts