When we say that someone ’speaks‘ a language fluently, we usually mean that they have a high level in all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. But, as any teacher knows, learners often have strengths or weaknesses in particular skills. In some cases, they can achieve high levels in, for example, reading and writing while not being able to speak or listen at a comparable level.
For some purposes – highly specialised jobs – these uneven skills may not matter very much. However, English is an essential skill in the global world and needed in so many different contexts that someone without a good ability in all four skills will significantly reduce the opportunities open to them in education and professional life.
The technique to use English in a variety of contexts involves multiple language skills, and therefore testing the four skills enhances the accuracy of a test!
If we want to assess someone’s speaking ability, we must get them to speak. The same applies to all the other skills. We can’t infer ability in one skill (e.g. speaking) from performance in another (e.g. listening) or using language knowledge tests, e.g. grammar, vocabulary, as proxies for communicative language ability.
Consequently, if we want to assess communicative language ability accurately, we need to include tasks that elicit a wide range of skills related to communicative language.
The Regular European Framework of Reference (2001) reaches the definition of communicative language ability into five skills and divides speaking into two skills: spoken production and spoken interaction. This is based on the evidence that these two skills are different since one involves only monologue-type speech and the other consists of being both a speaker and a listener at the same time. A test of informative language, therefore, needs to combine both spoken production and spoken interaction.
Learners’ development in the four skills is often unbalanced, and testing only some language skills may give an inaccurate view!
It is typical for language abilities across the four skills to be interrelated. However, such connections are not tough enough to measure one skill to substitute for another.
Learners’ progress of the four skills can be unstable, e.g. a learner could be substantial in reading but weak in listening, writing, or speaking. Research has suggested that the ability to communicate is distinct from the ability to read/listen,/write (Powers 2010, Sawaki et al. 2009). Therefore, a proficient reader/writer/listener may not necessarily be a professional speaker.
Testing all four skills has a positive impact on learning!
By testing all four skills, English exams inspire teachers and learners to take a balanced approach to language learning, assuring that the learners strengthen the ability to use the language effectively in the real world.