Testing passive vocabulary

As I stated before, I don’t think we can “teach” a word to a student. We can only “introduce” the word. It takes time and many exposures to the word in various contexts to begin to learn it. At most we can only make the initial introduction of the word to the student.

The student has only a passive knowledge of the word. He cannot produce the word. He cannot think of it when speaking to you. He cannot use it in an essay. This word is only on the fringes of the student’s memory.

Let’s say you are teaching business English and have  covered 200-300 new vocabulary items. (I’m always surprised that my college students don’t know “truck”.) So let’s say you want to see how well the students can recall the vocabulary covered in your class.

Writing an essay is not going to be an effective test. A vocabulary test can be effective.

If the student has only been introduced to the word, if he only has a basic knowledge of the word, if he only knows the word about 10%, then we need a test to measure that 10%.

Rather than stuffing my questions with, what testing experts call, “distracters”, wrong answers that look right, I stuffed my questions with non-distracters. That is, I put a lot of answers that absolutely could not be right. Here is an example:

He is very __ when he works. He does a good job and very quickly. CHOOSE ONE: high priority / efficient / predict / down the line

The question is written in a very clear and basic way. The sentence of the question is not testing the student, only the blank space. All of the vocabulary choices are from vocabulary that was covered in class. All of these choices are so completely impossible that they should not distract the student at all.

In other words, if the student has even just the most basic knowledge of the vocabulary, just knows it 10%, then he should be able to answer the question correctly. But at the same time, if the student did not study the lesson then it is very difficult for the student to get the right answer.

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