11 Essential Tips to Using An Interview-Style Process for Language Testing

Recently, I wrote an article for ICMI discussing how to use—and when not to use—interview-style assessments to screen for job candidate language ability. Over my career, I have worked with language teachers, administrators, and other professionals to develop their skills in capturing and evaluating language performance data. An interview-style approach, despite its limits, also has a lot of advantages. Selfishly, of its greatest benefits is that it is one of the most enjoyable to employ as a language-tester. It is a satisfying way to connect with the person that you are evaluating. 

Although I think interviews are harder to effectively use as a screening assessment, as a confirmatory measure, or for use as a diagnostic or summative assessment before or after instruction, interview tests can be a great way to get a snapshot of a language user’s abilities. However, in order for it to be more than just a getting-to-know-you exercise, it is important that you are deliberate and intentional in determining what language functions your questions will target. In the list below, I highlight what I see as some of the most key functions your interview should target.

Face to face job interview

My thinking was mostly contextualized within the domain of the ICMI article: language assessments within the circumstances of hiring for a contact center. In my work at Emmersion, I have been so impressed by the sheer volume of language-learners who are hired specifically for their language competency to do work in this area. It has been an exciting new space to think about, but I also think an overlap can be found with whatever application of language teaching, learning, or use case you need. 

1. A Flex Plan Approach

Have a plan, but plan for flexibility, too. I will usually create a grid with several questions that target a particular function so that I can adapt during the interview as I see what tasks or content areas are the best fit for the person being interviewed. 

2. Pre-instructions

They say if you start right, it is harder to go wrong. Before the actual interview begins, it is critical to give explicit instructions about the goal of the interview. Something along the lines of:

“Of course, I’m looking forward to get to know you! However, I am mostly interested in getting to know your abilities as an English language speaker! With that in mind, as you answer questions, answer them fully and with sufficient detail that it shows what you can do in English. If you think that a question will not give me good information about your abilities, maybe because it is not something you know a lot about or have experience with, let me know. Just say, ‘Could we talk about something else?’ I hope it is okay with you but it is essential that I record our conversation. That will allow me to review it afterward. While we are talking, I will be focusing more on my part. When I listen afterwards, I will be evaluating your performance. Any questions, or should we jump right in?”

Job applicant

3. Warm Up

It is good to ease the person being interviewed—and, frankly, yourself as the interviewer—into the task. A warm up should be easy. It is usually safe to start at an intermediate level. One of the most helpful rules of knowing you are at the intermediate level is at the heart of the word intermediate—ME. Intermediate speakers can talk about themselves. Try this:

“Let’s let you get comfortable talking. Tell me about yourself. What are your interests beyond using English? Tell me about your language-learning journey.”

4. Past Tense

If you are measuring English, past tense narration is a good indicator of language ability. Here is an example:

“Tell me about a time when you moved to a new place. Include detail from before, during, and right after the move. I am interested in some of the specific things you did to set up life in this new place.”

When you listen to their response you will be listening to confirm that the order of the events is clear, well-marked, and accurate in its form.

Moving

5. Description

An important language function that the candidate will need to manage is giving an appropriate amount of detail. There are three magic words that I use several times in an interview to get at this function of description, “Tell me more.” This phrase encourages the candidate to draw out additional descriptive details. Some people are talkers; some people are not. “Tell me more” is a natural way to coax out a person’s language ability so that you are measuring it, and not their personality.  

6. Redirection

It can also be helpful to—at least one time in the interview—interrupt a description with a phrase like, “Actually I was hoping to hear more about _______”. If you asked them to talk about a famous landmark in their hometown, you may interrupt their description of its physical characteristics and say, “Actually I was hoping to hear more about its history.” Not only does this elicit more breadth from their description, but seeing how they handle the shift and interruption can be very insightful.

7. Process

Identifying if an individual can communicate a familiar process to someone that is unfamiliar with it is another critical language application to assess for. One way to do this is by asking them to first identify a place that they go to once a week or so. Then, ask them to give you directions for how you would get to that place from their home or a common landmark like a subway station or airport. Tell them that you will take notes and then, after they finish, recall what details you noted. Instruct them to correct or clarify anything that you missed.

Giving tourist directions

8. Numbers

Effectively communicating strings of numbers and letters is a likely language scenario that many jobs require. This is a language task that can be helpful to elicit in an interview. There are many possible strings that you could have them produce, but it is helpful for it to include an unfamiliar or unpracticed string. Most wrappers or products like books, or even dollar bills, have a unique string on it that is used to identify it.

You can provide them with the object if you are in person. When over the phone, you can ask them to grab a book or wrapper or dollar bill and read out loud the string of letters or numbers that identify it. Write it down as they communicate it. After they have read it, read it back to them, but change one of the characters. Identifying if they can confirm and correct the errored string effectively is helpful.

9. Navigate a Conflict

Likely, you are expecting that this person uses their language skills to resolve situations of disagreement or even conflict. Here is an example of a related prompt:

“Tell me about a time when you were a customer and there was a problem with what you purchased or ordered and you needed help to resolve it. What was the problem? Who did you talk to? What actions did it require you to take? Give me as much detail as is appropriate so that I can understand the story from beginning to end.”

In telling the story of what happened, it is likely that they will give ‘voice’ to what was said or communicated. This will help you see what they would do in a more authentic scenario.

Call center agent

10. Role Play

If you do not role play, you are missing out on one of the most legitimate reasons to use interviews as an assessment. Role plays are also great ways to link to the context set by a previous task like navigating a conflict. After they finish describing the experience they had, try:

“Let’s use that situation to role play. In this scenario, I’m going to be you and you are going to be the person that you interacted with. Of course, I hope you will be more helpful. Do you need a second to organize your thoughts?”

11. Cool-down

If you have done your job right in assessing their full ability, you have to challenge a test-taker to the point we describe as ‘breakdown’. Within language assessment, breakdown is characterized by increased errors, pauses, or general disorder. It is the sign that you have established the most they can do. Obviously, you do not delight in breakdown—neither will they—and you should soften it with appropriate smiling and nodding. However, it is helpful if you give the person being interviewed a cool-down question or two so they end the interview feeling successful and appreciated.

Again, unless they are actually more novice, the intermediate is a comfortable place to end—remember the “me” rule. Let them talk about themselves. “What are your plans for the rest of the day? What is something that you are very passionate about right now? Do you have any questions?

Call center agent

I hope this is helpful, and I would love to hear about any tricks or go-to questions you have used with success. If you want someone to look over an interview grid or chat through any part of the interview assessment process, let’s connect.

As a reminder, interview-style language testing is useful for high-stakes situations. If you are in need of low-stakes testing for quick, accurate, reliable testing for situations such as job screening in contact centers, be sure to contact us about how we can help you automate this process!

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