English preterit and perfect testing techniques

Written by: Boryana Rogozherova, Senior Lecturer, e-mail: boryana@vtu.bg
T. Kableshkov Higher School of Transport, Chair of Humanities and Languages, Sofia

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Summary: The article treats some general issues related to the importance of language testing, types of tests, criteria testing materials should correspond to as well as more specific topics as to particularities and implementation of English preterit and perfect new testing techniques. Suggested innovative procedures concern the use of graphs, pictures, poetry, fiction texts, story-telling, text elicitation and editing.


1. Introduction

The current article, devoted to English preterit and perfect testing, represents a continuation of a previous paper (Ruzhekova Rogozherova 2007 on testing) focusing on roles of tests in general and for assessment and educational purposes, types of tests and some implementation ideas concerning testing and contrastive (French-English) testing of English preterit and perfect. As it has already been pointed out in some of my former works, both languages mentioned categories’ study and comparison of temporal, aspectual meanings and use, represent a major topic of interest (see in references other articles of Ruzhekova Rogozherova) as well as this one of my thesis. Even though current article is consequently written within the framework of these research interests, it is not purely theoretical; it does not only treat preterit and perfect test foundations, but it also puts forward innovative techniques and procedures as far as their implementation is concerned.


2. Importance of testing

In Introducing Applied Linguistics Corder regards tests “as measuring instruments” as they “are designed to measure the learner’s “knowledge”, or “competence in ”the language at a particular moment in his course …”.

However, tests supply much more information to specialists assessing the “relationship between the teaching materials and their exploitation, and language learning.” (ibid.)[1] Tests, consequently can be used in a large variety of purposes: providing relevant data to applied linguists as to teaching / learning styles; learning / acquisition problems; learners’ personal characteristics (background knowledge, qualifications, age, sex, native as well as other previously or simultaneously studied language(s) or issues regarding interference or interlanguage, emotionality, etc.) and the way they are related to curricula, teaching techniques and lecturers’ professional knowledge and skills. Last but not least, tests can be used as a teaching tool due to relevant feed back, explanation and remedial work, on the one hand (following this principle, they can be also implemented in the accurate representation grammar teaching stage), and on the other, test materials can “teach” in the very process of sitting the test through inferences and conclusions on the part of the examinee, granted the fact they fulfill quality tests criteria and encompass a large variety of arising interest test tasks. Thus, good quality testing materials are likely to provoke and stimulate interest in taught material or the language itself and this way enhance overall examinee linguistic knowledge and awareness. To sum up, quality test materials, their right application and results’ analysis can turn out to have several implications in influencing and promoting further research in language learning and acquisition, error prediction and error correction, relevant teaching methodology and resources, and also, in enhancing learners’ competence and motivation.

Before proceeding with preterit and perfect testing techniques and ideas, I shall write a few paragraphs related to types of tests as well to criteria test materials should correspond to.


3. Types of tests

Let me examine the following tests classification belonging to Cohen[2].

According to the types of achievement they measure tests fall into the following categories:

a. prognostic tests including aptitude tests and placement tests
b. evaluation of attainment tests including achievement tests (“assess the student’s performance in a given course ”) and general proficiency tests (“assess a student’s skill for real-life purposes ”)
c. norm-referenced (compares “a respondent with other respondents”) and criterion-referenced (measures “whether a respondent has met certain instructional… criteria”).

According to the skills tested tests can also fall into the following categories:

d. listening
e. reading
f. speaking
g. writing

According to “levels of intellectual operation” tests can check:

h. knowledge “(bringing to mind the appropriate material)”
i. comprehension “(understanding the basic meaning of the material)”
j. application “(applying the knowledge of the elements of language and comprehension to how they interrelate in the production of a correct oral or written message.)”
k. analysis “(breaking down a message into its constituents parts in order to make explicit the relationships between ideas…)”
l. synthesis “(arranging parts so as to produce a pattern…such as in effectively organizing ideas in a written composition)”
m. evaluation “(making quantitative and qualitative judgments about material)”.

According to “tested response behaviour” tests can check:

n. fluency “without concern for grammatical correctness”[3]
o. accuracy “phonological or grammatical correctness”.

According to “characteristics of respondents” tests may be designed for:

p. different age groups
q. different socioeconomic levels
r. different ethnic or language groups.

According to the “item response format” tests can be classified into:

s. fixed format (“include true / false, multiple choice, and matching items.”)
t. structured format (“include ordering (…respondents are requested to arrange words to make a sentence…), duplication…identification…and completion.”; Cohen also includes written or oral compositions, role-playing activities.)

According to tested language elements tests can check:

u. phonology
v. grammar
w. vocabulary
x. pragmatics
y. mechanics
z. stylistics.

This classification, quite exhaustive, is important to be mentioned in current paper although it considers two specific grammar categories’ testing, as in my view, tests quite often encompass different procedures, various techniques and always interrelated language skills, in other words, assessment materials may display rather mixed characteristics. I shall try to support this statement in further paragraphs through exemplifying items revealing various testing techniques.


4. Criteria testing materials should correspond to

Bachman and Palmer (2004: 9) define tests in terms of their usefulness, “consisting of several qualities (reliability, construct validity, authenticity, interactiveness, impact and practicality)”. They regard usefulness as “an overriding consideration for quality control throughout the process of designing, developing, and using a particular language test.” (ibid.) Having in mind the relevance of enumerated criteria in all test materials selection and elaboration, these principles will be briefly presented as it follows (description is based primarily on Bachman and Palmer’s work).


Reliability, considered along with validity as most essential test requirement, represents “consistency of measurement.” It means that test result should be more or less the same if it were produced by another equivalent purpose test, consisting though of different items and administered on different occasions. Were test results too much diverging, wouldn’t that mean acquired tested ability idea is not relevant? Can we state that such a test has already fulfilled its purpose? It is quite evident that the answer is “No”.

Construct Validity

A construct represents “… the specific definition of an ability that provides the basis for a given test or test task and for interpreting scores derived from this task. The term construct validity is therefore used to refer to the extent to which we can interpret a given test score as an indicator of the ability(ies), or construct(s), we want to measure.” This definition reveals examined criterion as indicator of testing materials’ appropriateness, characterized with tasks adequately revealing skill(s), language ability(ies) or domain tested.


A test is considered authentic if tested language use corresponds to the one needed to the examinee outside the test itself. The correspondence between “the characteristics of TLU[4] tasks and those of the test task (…) is at the heart of authenticity”, as evaluating mastery of a skill or of its components, which are not very likely to be used is of little value.


A test interactiveness is defined in terms of test taker’s personal characteristics (language knowledge, strategic competence, topical knowledge and affective schemata) involvement. I consider areas of language knowledge (vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics) absolutely obligatory to be tested in language tests. However, topical knowledge, combined with language use and skills appears too. It is characteristic to tests assessing specialized language competence and behaviour, aiming at “diagnosing” specific language use level of a test taker, possessing specific professional qualifications. It should be taken in consideration that topical knowledge elements inclusion is not recommended in purely linguistic testing – it can make the test biased giving advantage to those examinees with the higher degree of specialized competence.


Tests are characterized with certain degree of influence on a large or small scale, at micro or macro level, upon the individual or educational system and curricula. Tests can affect “educational practices and beliefs” (Cohen 1994), teaching and learning quality (Hughes 1989). We also support the view that specialists developing and using tests must investigate characteristic areas of impact, its degree and whether it is positive or negative (Wall and Alderson 1993).


Practicality is a test quality depending on resources needed to develop and implement in a test. It also represents important test quality participating in overall test criteria balance. As Bachman and Palmer (2004: 36) point out practicality can be defined “as the relationship between the resources that will be required in the design, development, and use of the test and the resources that will be available for these activities.”


5. Taking into account grammatical features of tested categories – prerequisite for the achievement of tests quality criteria and their balance

Accomplishment of just one of above enumerated test quality criteria as well as their combination in the right degree to which they are represented is impossible without possessing the strict knowledge of tested categories’ grammar features, the way they interrelate (in case forms are jointly tested) as well as procedures as to their effective teaching (teaching and testing, representing both sides of a unified process and thus mutually complementing each other). Grammar features’ analysis (as well as other factors like interlanguage, NL, FL1, FL2, error prediction, see Ruzhekova Rogozherova’s articles on contrastively teaching English preterit and perfect) determines not only types of test tasks, but also their number, sequence, resources, measuring the “weight” of different tasks and their components or scoring.

Taking into account interconnection between tested skills and abilities’ features, teaching and testing techniques, we shall proceed with a short description of English preterit and perfect temporal and aspectual characteristics.


5.1. English preterit – temporal characteristics

English Preterit represents the marked member of the typical for English temporal system binary opposition simple past – simple present (Quirk 1985, Downing and Locke 1992, Valeika and Buitkiené 2003, Huddleston 2002 on present and past being tenses in contrast with will + infinitive). All other forms (progressive, perfect, their combination, will-future and other modality-based forms) are not considered tense forms due to their lack of deicticity and unified morphological structure, characteristic to tenses as well as modality (in the case of will and other modal verbs-based forms).

English preterit’s main temporal features deriving from the form’s deicticity – pointing at the past moment in which the activity took place – are: lack of current relevance and consequently, expression of a single or a series of non-current relevant event(s) or narration, expression of simultaneous or non-chronologically presented events, omnitemporality, transpositional use in conditional structures and while expressing politeness in some functions.


5.2. English preterit – aspectual characteristics

The category’s aspectual features deriving from its deicticity are within the scope of its perfectiveness (finished activity) as English preterit also possesses the ability of expressing imperfective (non-finished) activities.

Suggested test materials only concern the form’s perfective aspectual meanings, or as it follows: inchoativity (beginning of an activity), punctuality (activity accomplished in a minimal time period, duration (finished in some time limits activity), repetition (finished series of repeated events), and termination (emphasis on the end of an activity, the opposite of inchoativity).


5.3. English perfect– aspectual characteristics

English perfect is only characterized by aspectual features as it is not a tense (Comrie 1998, Brinton1988). The form is not deictic, it predominantly expresses correlation or if I could mention here deicticity at all, it would be “correlation deicticity” (term of mine). In my view, resulting from scientific research, perfect’s basic meanings derive from its possessiveness (due to the possessive auxiliary acquiring the activity result, group (A)), from “correlation deicticity” (group (B)), as well as from the combination of both types of features (group (C)). Meanings pertaining to group (A) are: possessive resultativity (term of mine), recent activity, anteriority, future transposition; meanings pertaining to group      (B) are: “not yet” perfect (term of mine), omnitemporality, integral and progressive actuality (term of mine); meanings pertaining to group (C) are: acquired experience, superlative perfectness (term of mine), generalization (term of mine). These meanings are bound to be included as test values (it goes without saying that test takers do not have to be acquainted with scientific classifications or names of meanings), depending on examinees’ level of grammar knowledge; forthcoming paragraphs treat applicable to most frequently used meanings test procedures and techniques.


6. Ideas in designing English preterit and perfect test items

Hereby proposed ideas, as it was pointed out, stem from tested forms’ characteristics as well as from already presented test classification and quality criteria.

My former testing article (2007) focused mainly on ideas of fixed and structured format exercises like the following ones related to: sentences completion using suggested (jumbled) verbs in their correct form; sentences completion through brackets opening – putting the verb into the correct form, positive or negative; ordering jumbled words to form sensible sentences; sentences translation (taking into account most probable NL or FL1 interference); matching phrases from columns using suitable conjunctions; reading comprehension  with “labelling” statements as “true” or “false”.

I shall present some more creative suggestions involving varied techniques use making the test more attractive, appealing and this way, enhancing test-coping and learning opportunities. These ideas were partially inspired by Celce-Murcia and Hilles’s book (1988) on grammar teaching techniques and resources. Believing that (as above written) teaching and testing are closely intertwined, being both sides of a unified process and can, consequently, interconnect, I reckon that teaching procedures and methodology can be used in testing and vice versa. Suggested techniques have been, of course, adapted to suit the purposes of a test, and especially preterit and perfect testing materials.


6.1. Story telling

In Ruzhekova Rogozherova 2007 on contrastively teaching English preterit and perfect story telling was suggested as being quite appropriate at accurate use grammar teaching stage, especially when teaching the preterit, due to its characteristic narrative use. However, it should be kept in mind that this technique could be successfully implemented while testing the perfect as well – in sharing experiences, talking about acquired things or achievements of living people, expressing opinions, commenting results of activities. One and the same text could involve both categories’ use; it happens quite often in testing, due to problems most learners face regarding to understanding, not confusing and consolidating these forms’ meanings and use.

Test takers could be asked, in accordance with tested levels, to produce a real or imagined, short or detailed story on some memorable happenings they lived (or have lived through); they could be asked to comment on it and motivate their choice on telling this story exactly. Use of forms will provide relevant information on tested category(ies) mastering.


6.2. Pictures use

Pictures can be also adopted for testing purposes. A sequence of consecutive or jumbled activities images could represent the basis of a written account, thus testing again preterit use.

In case pictures present changes, results or acquisition, their description will certainly involve perfect use and this way, test it (as for example, Murphy 2004).


6.3. Charts, tables and graphs use

Learners (especially adults) face the need to correctly present their CVs or interpret different tables and graphs. Similar types of test task, being relevant to learners’ experience, are likely to be fruitful in teaching and testing as well. I shall present here three ideas; although all of them are mainly related to testing the preterit, a perfect testing possibility will be also suggested.

Preparing a CV

Learners can be asked to fill in a similar chart and then describe their employment, skills and acquired experience, imagining they are at a job interview. An example could be given, like the following one:

Education, years, start from the most recent Employment, years, start from the most recent Duties Acquired knowledge and experience so far
1995-1999-PhD in accountancy and trading Advertising and sales manager, Bosh, 2007-2002 Marketing research, marketing plans, strategic planning, promotions, planning advertising campaigns General economic and managerial knowledge, specialized knowledge in…

Foreign languages at levels…

Business School, 1989-1994 Sales manager in Siemens, 1999 – 2002 Research, sales  planning

Test takers will obviously show some preterit knowledge and skills while describing consecutive employments and fulfilled duties during the period. However, the third column will be likely to make them use the perfect of acquired result and experience.

In case the applicant is still at work, the first column, first box description will be likely to make him/her use the perfect of current activity.

A daily routine table

Examinees could be presented with a table to fill in their daily routine and then, using it, they need to be asked to write about things they did on the previous day.

Graph(s) interpreting or drawing

In case the test requires some topical (business, for example) knowledge, test takers could be asked to interpret a graph describing shares or some products’ prices change. This task could be carried out in a simplified or more difficult (designed for advanced learners) variations. Advanced learners are only provided with possible infinitive verbs to use, whereas lower levels examinees just fill in blanks with appropriate verb forms in a prepared beforehand text. This idea (partially inspired by Strutt 2000) is illustrated on the figure below.

Test takers can be also required to draw a graph on a coordinate system illustrating a short article similar to the following one (this exercise and text were used by Strutt 2000):

“The price of zinc went up slightly by $50 a tonne during the first three months of the year from its turn-of-the-year price of $1,550 a tonne to reach a respectable $1,600. It then rose sharply on 1 April and continued to climb steadily until the end of June when it peaked at (…) It continued its fall to reach a record low of $1,350 on 3 November. Since then it has picked up gradually and is expected to continue to rise slowly in the coming weeks.”

As it can be seen from the text, this type of activity does not uniquely presuppose the preterit use, learners can be equally asked to show their mastery of the perfect of current activity.


6.4. Poetry or fiction texts use

Poetry (it is likely to be more appealing to test takers due to the rhythm and rimes, though it could create more problems with understanding in comparison with fiction) or fiction texts can be also implemented while testing studied categories, at higher levels. A poem or a fiction text could be typed leaving blank spaces at some verb forms’ positions. I suggest while using poems we should not “deprive” test takers of all preterit and perfect forms; we should pick up some to remain in the purpose of making context more evident and, consequently, minimize needed time to cope with the task. Test takers are asked to fill in the blanks; all right suggestions are accepted. However, this task can be simplified if test developers supply jumbled infinitive verbs that should be used.

This task may be illustrated through a poem by Robert Frost; the integral text was selected by Celce-Murcia and Hilles 1988 to be implemented in grammar teaching, with proposed different from hereby suggested procedures, of course.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads ……………….. in a yellow wood,
And sorry I …………….not travel both
And be one traveler, long I ………………
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it ………………in the undergrowth;

Then ………….. the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it ……….. grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally …………..
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I ………… the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads on to way,
I ……………. if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two diverged in a wood, and I –
I ………… the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost


6.5. Text manipulation

In this task test takers will have to transform, for example, a written in the present simple text into the preterit and introduce slight contextual changes if grammar context requires it.

Slager (1973 in Celce-Murcia and Hilles 1988) proposes an interesting technique in text manipulation consisting in ordering random presented sentences belonging to a paragraph in the purpose of forming a sensible sequence. This way, I reckon, meanings and use of forms are tested too.


6.6. Text elicitation

This task consists in creating some imaginative context appropriate for the use of studied categories. Test takers should develop a short paragraph providing required information as proposed. Examinees can be asked for example, to imagine they have recently been promoted and explain why. This task will certainly reveal the extent to which they have mastered the perfect of result and experience, used when describing achievements.


6.7. Text editing

This test task focuses on correcting deliberately wrong grammar (either morphological form could be mistaken or a category’s meanings and use). Some clues, like pointing out number, type(s) and location (in a harder text) of errors, should be provided.


7. Conclusion

In the paper I tried to briefly present FL testing role in FL teaching process together with some creative preterit and perfect testing techniques and procedures. I shall not dwell long on test items’ variety importance as it has been already discussed, neither on quality test criteria. I shall just emphasize the fact that quality testing is bound to have not only its personal, related to language competence enhancement effect, but also, it can influence the teaching / learning process as a whole, curricula as well as overall FL studying motivation in its capacity of measuring and teaching tool at the same time.



  1. Bachman, L., Palmer., A. 2004: Language Testing in Practice. OUP.
  2. Brinton, L. 1988: The Development of English Aspectual Systems. CUP.
  3. Celce-Murcia, M. and Hilles, J. 1988: Techniques and Resources in Grammar Teaching. OUP.
  4. Cohen, A. 1979: In: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Celce-Murcia, M., Mc Intosh, L., Editors. Cambridge: NEWBURY HOUSE PUBLISHERS.
  5. Comrie, B. 1998: Aspect: An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. CUP.
  6. Corder, S. 1973: Introducing Applied Linguistics. Penguin Books Ltd.
  1. Downing, A., Locke, P. 1992: University Course in English Grammar. Prentice Hall, Inc.
  2. Huddleston, R., Pullum, G.K. 2002: The Verb. In: Cambridge Grammar of English Language. CUP. (чрез: Valeika, L., Buitkiené,J.)
  3. Murphy, R. 2004: Essential English Grammar. CUP.
  4. Quirk, R. 1985: A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman Group Limited.
  5. Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B. 2007: Teaching English Preterit and Perfect to Influenced by French Learners. BETA-IATEFL Conference proceedings.
  6. Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B. 2007: Contrastive Analysis (French-English) in Teaching English Preterit and Perfect through Technical Texts. Liternet 10 (95).
  7. Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B. 2007: Durative Value of English Preterit. Liternet 11 (96).
  8. Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B. 2007: Testing Strategies in English. Sofia: Transport 2007 Conference proceedings.
  9. Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B. 2008: Contrastive Teaching and Translation. HLT Magazine, Year 10; Issue 2. April.
  10. Soars, J. and L. 2000: New Headway Pre-Intermediate, Workbook. OUP.
  11. Strutt, P. 2000: Powerhouse. Workbook. Longman Ltd.
  12. Valeika, L., Buitkiené, J.2003: An Introductory Course in Theoretical English Grammar. Vilnius Pedagogical University.

[1] Corder 1973, both quotations are on pp. 351, 352.
[2] Cohen, A. 1979: 332,333
[3] However, I reckon that fluency is impossible without at least to some extent adequate grammar that does not hamper understanding. There are frequent examples proving the existence of fine but relevant to meaning and therefore obligatory to be mastered grammar hues (for example related to discriminating time-referenced perfect from preterit).
[4] Target Language Use (term used by quoted authors) – language structures, register, style or level of language knowledge  needed or frequently used by the examinee

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