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ESL Exam Questions and How to Write Them

ESL Exam Questions and How to Write Them

I have lost track of the number of times I have heard students complain that the exam was too ‘tough’ or that the questions were ‘unclear’ or ‘unfair’. While there may be a small number of teachers out there who may intentionally try to trick their students by writing exams that are impossible to pass or even understand, I suspect most are attempting to honestly evaluate their students.

Unfortunately, many teachers lack an understanding of how to use the different types of questions available. There may also be a tendency to forget that students may not understand the language used in some of the more obscure short or long answer questions. I would like to briefly address both of these issues in this article.

Types of ESL Exam Questions and Using Them Effectively

Tests commonly include questions that ask students to select the appropriate answers from a list of options provided by the teacher. 

a) True/False questions:

Here, the students read a statement and choose True or False based on what they know. While these can be quick to grade for the teacher, they can be hard to write so that they are unambiguous. Further, students can guess and have a 50% chance of getting the correct answer even if they do not actually know it.

b) Matching:

Students choose items from two columns (a and b) and have to choose the best fit (e.g. term and definition) between items/columns. Again,  it is testing what students remember. However, if the numbers of items in both columns are the same they may get lucky on at least one item at the end. So, there here should always be more items in one column (probably b) so that you eliminate guessing at the end.

c) Multiple Choice Questions:

Students choose the correct answer(s) from a list provided by the teacher. This is probably the worst utilized of these types of questions because both teachers and students think that they are too easy. However, a good multiple choice question can have at least 5 options if you use your imagination. At least 3 possible answers are best (a-c) followed by combinations (a+b, b+c) and then the always popular ‘all of the above’ and ‘none of the above’. In the end, if constructed properly, they will make your students think and test them almost as well as short or long form written answers.

ESL exam questions – Don’t follow patterns

One important point to remember is that most teachers have a tendency to follow patterns. When I was in University, it was common practice to pick ‘C’ when you did not know the answer. I have noticed over the years that I do tend to favor ‘A’ or ‘B’ in multiple choice questions so I have had to consciously change that. Answers to each question should follow similar structures (start with nouns or verbs, for example) and should all be roughly the same length to eliminate the chances of intuitively guessing the right or wrong answers.

Further, using the perfect patterns like T, F, T, F or A, B, C, D all the time is dangerous since some students will fill in the answers using these types of patterns without even reading the questions. Finally, remember that these questions are best used to test knowledge of facts rather than more complex ideas or concepts like understanding or critical thinking.

More ESL exam questions

a) Fill in the blank questions:

Students fill in a word or phrase demonstrating their knowledge. Like the questions mentioned above, this may involve remembering facts, quotations, etc. or may push students to analyse or synthesize as well if longer and more detailed answers are required.

b) Short answer questions:

Students must respond to the questions asked in 2-3 sentences requiring a concise but more well constructed and thought out answer. Students need to read and understand the question before they write anything and bluffing or more advanced writing skills may influence their grade.

c) Long answer questions:

Students need to understand the question being asked fully and probably need to do a brief outline of their answer before they start writing a full, 5 paragraph essay in response. Here, they language of the question must be clear and unambiguous or students may write the ‘wrong’ answer in response to the question.

For these questions, fewer questions may be needed to properly assess students’ knowledge and understanding of what has been taught but the use of a rubric may be necessary to reduce the teacher’s subjectivity in grading these types of questions.


Common Exam Question Terms and What They Mean



What is it asking you to do?


Explain a word/term with a complex meaning clearly as it may have multiple meanings/interpretations.


Investigate an idea, evaluate evidence, and expound on an idea by setting forth a clear and concise position or argument related to the idea.


Think about how each part or aspect of something contributes to the success of failure of the whole thing, process, etc. Remember not to simply summarise, be sure to tell how and why it functions they way it does.



Present a strong and convincing argument to an audience that probably disagrees with your viewpoint. Gather evidence and present a well argued and supported point of view on a debatable issue.

Persuasive/Persuade: (Opinion)

Similar to an argumentative essay, in this case you  need to use solid evidence and sound reasoning to agree with your opinion on a particular issue or topic.


Explain how one action or event caused certain effects to occur. In this case, you can focus on causes or on effects depending on the question being asked and what was taught.

Compare and Contrast:

Find original similarities or differences between two things or categories of things. Be sure to clarify whether you are to focus on how things are the same (compare), different (contrast) or both (compare and contrast).


Tell a story (usually that you experienced) so that the reader learns a lesson or gains some insight. Tells what happened, why it happened and what you learned from your experience.


Describe a person, object or event with such clarity that the reader feels like they are seeing, feeling or experiencing it. Requires skillful use of adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc.


Choose a topic that people tend to underestimate or oversimplify and explain how interesting or complex it really is to your reader. Use meaningful and important topics to help categorize and offer a detailed analysis about your topic.


Consider how we categorise and characterise everyday things. Argue convincingly that something has been misclassified or miscategorized.


Using a mix of the above types esl exam questions and making sure that your questions are well written, clearly explained and understood by your students will help reduce confusion and ensure that your tests actually evaluate the right content in appropriate ways. While students will probably never enjoy taking tests, it is important to ensure that they are as free of needless confusion and irritation as humanly possible.

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