Language tests for children – gentle encouragement or too much stress?
8th January 2019
Cambridge English Qualifications for young learners are developed specifically for children around 6 – 12 years of age. There are three levels, called pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers, and each level comprises three components testing different language skills: listening, reading and writing, and speaking. The tests are designed to make learning English fun and enjoyable, and give children and their families a chance to celebrate their achievements in English. For this reason, the tests use age-appropriate activities and colourful images, and all candidates receive a certificate showing their achievement in the form of one to five shields per paper. This article uses evidence mostly from Cambridge English research in schools in Spain, Taiwan, and Vietnam to show how Starters, Movers and Flyers motivate children, encourage them and their teachers to learn the full range of language skills, and help them and their teachers see where they need to improve. The studies cited used surveys and interviews with teachers and students to gain insight into the impacts and effects of introducing Starters, Movers and Flyers [1-4].
Tests that match learners’ goals
Children see pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers as being linked to their goals in life. For example, our surveys suggest that most young learners agree that learning English will be useful for them when they ‘learn new things’, for study abroad, or to improve their job prospects. Teachers recognise that setting the tests as learning goals is highly motivating for learners; one teacher from Madrid said ‘the [tests] give students a goal to work towards. Students know the [tests] will be good for their future’. This increase in motivation is also observed in classroom behaviour – teachers report that children became more positive about learning English, worked harder and paid more attention after The Cambridge English Qualifications for young learners were introduced. For example, a teacher from Navarra commented ‘The idea of doing an exam which is not from here, not from Navarra, they feel important and for the motivation it’s really good. [The children think] “Oooh, I’m going to do Movers, and another person from another school is coming to assess me.” I think they like it a lot. And if they like it a lot, they’re going to do it better’.
These findings align well with motivational theories of second language learning. For example, the “motivational self” system proposed by Prof. Zoltán Dörnyei of Nottingham University, suggests that learners imagine themselves when they are fluent in a second language, and these images of their future selves encourage and motivate them in their studies . From the research, it appears that preparing for Starters, Movers and Flyers gives children a concrete vision of their future English speaking selves.
Teaching the five skills
The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), developed by the Council of Europe, is a set of criteria for the assessment of second or foreign language ability . In the CEFR, language ability comprises five skills: reading, writing and listening, as well as spoken production and interaction. The tests assess all five of these skills. Cambridge English impact studies suggest that introducing the tests encourages teachers to focus on all five skills, and teachers and schools perceive the tests as being balanced and complete.
Introducing pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers is also known to be helpful for teachers’ classroom practices; teachers in our studies have evaluated their teaching and focused on specific skills or content included in the tests[1, 2]. For example, teachers have reported incorporating more communication activities into lessons. Teachers commented that the communication activities improved the children’s confidence with speaking; for example, one teacher from Navarra commented ‘Having a conversation with someone they don’t know builds students’ confidence’. Other research conducted in Vietnam  revealed that after the introduction of the tests many teachers began sharing goals (i.e. standards or levels they are working towards) with learners, a practice also shown in wider education research to be strongly connected with increased learning gains.
As a result of these changes in teaching practices, young learners’ English language education is likely to be more balanced across all the main language skills and learners are more likely to understand and be motivated by the goals they are working towards.
Helping children to know their strengths and weaknesses
Learners’ abilities can vary across the five skills. For example, a learner may be strong in listening and speaking, but weaker in reading and writing. One advantage of pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers is that performance on each part of the test (listening, reading and writing, speaking) is reported separately. Candidates receive up to five ‘shields’ for their performance on each part.
Research in educational psychology indicates that feedback is most effective when it relates to specific tasks and focuses on how to improve performance. Likewise, our research has shown that introducing Cambridge English: Young Learners makes learners’ strengths and weaknesses clear in concrete ways that help teachers and learners know what to focus on. For example, teachers use performance on practice tests and exercises that are similar to pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers to provide more detailed feedback to students . Moreover, schools have reported that learners use feedback from the tests and practice activities to focus on improving areas in which they are weak . For example, one teacher in Madrid commented ‘[students] say “I got a bad mark in listening- what can I do about it?” Students see particular problems and want to resolve them… now students are much more self-aware as to their strengths and weaknesses than they were [previously]’.
Finally, parental awareness of tests contributes to learning and motivation because families are very important in young children’s lives. Schools report that as a result of adopting Starters, Movers and Flyers, parents are more aware of their children’s strengths and weaknesses, due to the schools using test results to increase communication with parents about their children’s progress .
Tests in tune with children’s cognitive development
Young learners differ markedly from adults in how they think and learn [8-10]. For example, children’s memory capacity and processing is more limited than adults’. Children have less mature reasoning abilities and are less able to make inferences than adults. They are also less consciously aware of their own learning, which is important for information processing, acting strategically and efficient decision making. Young children’s Theory of Mind (i.e., an awareness that others’ perspectives may differ from their own) is also developing. They also have more limited world knowledge and experience than adults. Importantly, young learners’ first language abilities and interactional skills are also not fully developed. Tests for children need to take these factors into consideration.
Pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers are tailored to their audience in numerous ways:
- Visual cues and colourful illustrations are used throughout the tests.
- The reading and writing requirements are reduced.
- The listening tests use visual multiple choice questions and material that is appropriate to the age-group.
- Topics include content that is familiar to young learners e.g., everyday objects, animals, food.
- The speaking tests involve simple conversations, straightforward questions and do not use a paired format in consideration of children’s limited interactional skills.
- Scaffolding (i.e., support to help a learner succeed in a task) is designed into the test tasks, with a clear progression in each skill from controlled tasks / questions to more open-ended ones (i.e., more to less scaffolding). Additionally, speaking examiner prompts provide progressively more scaffolding to candidates who need support on specific speaking tasks. This flexible and adaptable approach, which is part of face-to-face speaking tests, is important for children as they often have not yet fully developed strategic thinking and social skills, and allows both stronger and weaker candidates to show their English skills.
In our research, teachers report that the exercises in pre-A1 Starters, A1 Movers and A2 Flyers are well targeted to the appropriate ability level for young learners, the topics are suitable, and the tests are easy to prepare for. Teachers also value the tests as a gentle introduction that helps prepare students for taking more difficult exams in the future .
- Ashton, K., A. Salamoura, and E. Diaz, The BEDA impact project: A preliminary investigation of a bilingual programme in Spain. Research Notes, 2012. 50: p. 34-42.
- Breeze, R. and H. Roothooft, Final Report: Implantation of Cambridge English: Young Learners exams in Spanish schools: Teacher Perspectives and washback on classroom practice. 2013.
- Khalifa, H., et al., Taiwan Impact Study. Cambridge English Language Assessment Research & Validation Report, 2012.
- Khalifa, H., T. Nguyen, and C. Walker, An investigation into the effect of intensive language provision and external assessment in primary educatin in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Research Notes, 2012. 50: p. 34-42.
- Dörnyei, Z., The L2 motivational self system, in Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. 2005, Multilingual Matters: Bristol.
- Council of Europe, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. 2001, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hattie, J. and H. Timperley, The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 2007. 77: p. 81-112.
- Field, J., Cognitive validity of tests of listening and speaking designed for young learners, in Studies in Language Testing. Forthcoming.
- Goswami, U., Cognitive development: The learning brain. 2008, New York: Psychology Press.
- Meadows, M., The Child as Thinker. The development and acquisition of cognition in childhood. 2nd ed. 2006, Hove: Routeledge.