Assessment and the nature of Language

What is language? Why do people need to learn a language, be it their mother tongue or an additional language?

Clearly, language is a tool for acquiring basic skills. The early grades in school have long been known to focus on “reading, writing, and arithmetic”; two of these directly involve language, as does the third with respect to understanding instructions and completing word problems. Without these basics, as well as the ability to use and understand spoken language, gaining access to knowledge related to science, social studies, and other school subjects as students seek to progress through school is practically impossible. Also impossible without learning to read or write is benefiting from access to knowledge outside of school; knowledge available online, and also through the print media. Language is thus also a tool for gaining knowledge, not only through reading but also listening, as well as through writing and speaking as we actively search for information through online sources and in communication with individuals such as teachers, classmates, our parents, and others. And through relatives, school contacts, and others in our community, language also serves as a tool for acquiring and transmitting culture.

Because language involves listening, speaking, reading, and writing, it is also our primary tool for communication, both as transmitters and receivers of messages. As transmitters of communication, we realize that language is also a tool for sharing knowledge, and indeed, not only knowledge but also feelings and beliefs, hopes and events in our lives. Finally, communication between speakers or writers of a common language is possible only because every human language is also a linguistic system with its own lexis, sound system, writing system (in most cases), and formal structure at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.

How does all this relate to assessment? It does so because we teach language for a reason, or set of reasons, presumably in line with learners’ needs. In order to check our success, we must assess our students’ understanding of what we have been trying to teach, not only to give them feedback on their progress, but also to assess our own work and to make changes to our instruction when necessary.  If our learners need to acquire basic literacy skills, we need to monitor their acquisition closely and regularly, and use assessment tools that serve that purpose effectively. If we are teaching in order to help students learn the content of a particular school subject, then we need to check that they have the linguistic skills to access that content, and that they are sufficiently building up their knowledge of the subject matter being taught. If we are teaching learners seeking to enter a higher-education program being taught through the medium of a second or additional language, we need to make sure they have or develop the linguistic skills in that language in order to have the language proficiency needed to boost their chances of success in their desired program; thus regular assessment is needed to ascertain their acquisition of those skills and their general proficiency in the language.

Finally, language proficiency tests reflect the designers’ perspectives on language learning and learner needs. Older tests such as the Michigan Test and the original TOEFL PBT (paper based test), which included multiple-choice subtests focusing particularly grammar and vocabulary, largely reflected a view of language as a linguistic system–which indeed it is, though it is clearly much more. The IELTS tests, on the other hand, being task-based across all four skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), reflect a view of language as a tool for communication, for both production and comprehension. Additionally, these tasks reflect a view of language as a tool for understanding and sharing knowledge. Language as a linguistic system, as a perspective, is subordinate to those two dominant views. Lastly, the Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency Tests, as well as the more recent Pearson tests, all with multiple subtests for each skill, reflect the perspectives of language as a system, as a tool for communication, and as a tool for understanding and sharing knowledge.

What perspectives of language are evident in our teaching?

To what degree is this evident in our assessment practices?

How well do our teaching and assessment practices serve the language-learning needs of our learners?



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