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  • Testing Business English Learners: A Trend on the Rise

    There is an increasing need to measure Business English learners’ progress according to tests that are both useful for work-related purposes and valid for assessment goals.

    After her presentation at the BESIG PCE in Manchester, in April 10th, we sat down with Dr. Ivana Vidaković who kindly agreed to be interviewed for our BESIG BLOG.

    Could you tell us a bit about your academic and professional background? How did you become specialized in testing and assessment?

    Everything began with my love of foreign languages, particularly English. I had completed my BA in English language and literature at the University of Belgrade, and then specialised in applied linguistics through my master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Cambridge. My doctorate in second language acquisition (or foreign language learning) led me to a related area – that of language assessment – so here I am now.

    It could be said that my whole career is pretty ironical. As a child, I wouldn’t allow a close member of my family to learn English because I feared she’d forget her mother tongue and I wouldn’t be able to understand her. She reminded me of that when I became a teacher of English.

    What is your current role?

    I am a Senior Research and Validation Manager and I specialise in testing English for Specific Purposes. My current research interests also lie in the assessment of reading comprehension, learner corpus analysis and the impact of English language examinations on various test users. I am also the Editor of Research Notes, a quarterly publication of Cambridge Assessment on matters related to research, testing and teaching. We publish internal and external research on our examinations as well as on research undertaken as part of government and corporate sector projects we work on. Since we support teachers in their further professional development through action research programmes we fund, several issues of Research Notes have been dedicated exclusively to teachers’ classroom research. If you would like to read more about them, you could visit this link:


    What are the most relevant aspects to test in a Business English course?

    What is most relevant will depend on the purpose of a course, a test and on students’ needs. In general, a focus on the communication and comprehension skills which are typically required in a business context would be advisable, so that students become better prepared for real-life tasks.


    Testing profession-specific writing and speaking skills may include evaluating the ability to tailor speech and writing to different audiences. For example, talking on (semi-)technical issues with a lay person is as important as taking with a fellow professional. In addition, the ability to use a range of styles, and to write in different genres, such as forms, memos and reports, is also relevant to a business context.


    Testing the relevant reading and listening comprehension skills may include focussing on reading and listening for detail, gist, careful reading, as well as skimming and scanning of appropriate business-related texts. Teachers could also consider testing the ability to extract and synthesise relevant information from multiple sources at higher ability levels.


    For people working in a business context, it’s necessary to ‘operate with’ certain language functions. So, teachers may want to determine if their students can use their English to persuade, recommend, evaluate and challenge - in spoken and in written communication.


    When testing in an ESP course, how can we differentiate linguistic performance from content knowledge? Can these aspects be validly separated in a test?

    It all depends on what your idea of separating linguistic performance from content knowledge is about.

    If you want to create a test of language ability rather than content knowledge, there are a few things you could do. Design your comprehension tasks in such a way that a test-taker can only arrive at the correct answer by understanding the language of a text, rather than by drawing on their knowledge of the subject. This means that test questions should be firmly grounded in the text itself. Also, avoid highly specialised texts as they may contain obscure terminology and concepts, thereby requiring a substantial amount of specialised content knowledge for comprehension. Bear in mind that nobody is a specialist in every aspect of their profession or academic discipline. As far as assessing Speaking and Writing performance is concerned, you should create and use linguistic assessment criteria (for example, coherence, cohesion, intelligibility, the range and accuracy of grammatical structures, etc.).

    You can avoid assessing content knowledge, but you cannot stop test takers from drawing on that knowledge when addressing ESP test tasks. In a business English test, business professionals or business students will most likely use their knowledge of terminology and concepts, phrases and text structure to process a text faster and enrich meaning. Besides, if a task requires them to speak on a business-specific issue, they need to draw on their knowledge of the issue in order to be able to speak. In this sense, language ability and content knowledge cannot be separated in an ESP test. One’s ability to use language in a specific workplace context requires both.

    Are teachers prepared to evaluate content knowledge?

    ESP teachers shouldn’t be expected to evaluate content knowledge. Trained lawyers who are also (qualified) teachers of English, for example, may be well placed to assess both content knowledge and language ability. However, ESP tests typically assess English language ability in a specific context and that’s what teachers should evaluate. Content knowledge is generally assessed by employers and Universities in dedicated cycles of a recruitment process.

    What ESP teachers should certainly be prepared to do is learn how language is used in a specific professional or academic domain. That’s part and parcel of teaching an ESP course.

    What advice would you give to BE trainers when preparing their tests?

    The same advice I’d give them for designing an ESP course: learn about your test takers and their needs; if possible, work with content specialists to identify relevant tasks and their features; last, but not least, consider how your test fits in with the course you are teaching – are you creating an organic whole?

    All of this should feed into decisions on task types as well as on the skills and abilities your ESP test should cover.

    What tests would you recommend for BE learners?

    All Cambridge English exams are widely used and recognised by businesses and universities around the world. If learners of Business English would like to take an exam that is specifically tailored to a business context, Cambridge Assessment offers Business English Certificates (Cambridge English: Business Preliminary, Vantage and Higher) as well as BULATS – the Business Language Testing Service. These examinations are designed for candidates who need to use English in their work or who are preparing for a career in international business. Both Business Certificates and BULATS are suitable for students and professionals, but there are some differences between them.


    For example, each Business Certificate is set at a single level on the Common European Framework of Reference (the CEFR): Preliminary is set at B1, Vantage at B2 and Higher at C1. Each of them assesses all four skills - Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing - thereby providing a comprehensive picture of what a test taker can do in English.


    BULATS, on the other hand, covers all levels on the CEFR, from A1 to C2. It offers more flexibility because it is a modular exam. Modularity means that separate test components can be taken on their own and have a value of their own. So, one could take the test of Reading and Listening without taking the test of Speaking or the test of Writing.


    Associated with BULATS is BULATS Benchmarking. As part of BULATS Benchmarking, a set of questionnaires are used to establish the required level of language ability for jobs and roles, after which BULATS tests are administered to assess the language proficiency of employees. The system is flexible and easy to use, and can be tailored to meet the needs of any organisation.

    Thank you Dr. Vidaković for sharing your experience with us!  

    Dana Poklepovic

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