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How can language assessment be designed so that it better represents real-life language use? By Vinicius Nobre

The influence that assessment has in the way we teach is undeniable, though often overlooked. A lot of decisions related to our teaching, such as resources, materials, techniques, sequencing of activities, lesson objectives and other pedagogical elements are consciously (or unconsciously) impacted by the assessment tools that we rely on – or are forced to use.

Considering the pivotal role that assessment can play in pedagogy, how can we resort to what we know about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in order to devise evaluations that are more valid and truly represent the kind of interactions that speakers are more likely to have?

English is a Global Language

We now know that an English language learner is much more likely to interact with other non-native speakers than with a prototypical American or British speaker.

English is the language most people use when socializing, doing business, engaging in transactions or studying with other nationalities. However, not every assessment tool seems to take this diversity in consideration when selecting reading and listening texts or even when writing rubrics to evaluate learners’ production.

Based on how some assessment tools are created, there seems to be an inherent expectation that language learners will only read and listen to materials produced by ‘native speakers’, and that they should all aim at sounding as ‘native-like’ as possible.

Washback effect

The moment we choose a specific framework to assess learning, we immediately see consequences in the design of syllabi, courses and classes. As teachers, we want our students to perform well and how performance is going to be measured informs us of what we need to prepare students for. This is what we call a washback effect.

According to Brown (2004), “washback is the effect of testing on teaching and learning”, and I truly believe that teaching and learning can be severely impacted by our choice of test format, test content and test dynamics. For instance, if students’ learning is only assessed through formal written tests filled with multiple choice exercises, chances are the lessons will privilege written multiple-choice exercises – at the expense of other skills and competences.

On the other hand, if the tests bring authentic texts to assess students’ reading comprehension, teachers are likely to prepare students for this type of test by bringing authentic materials to class, which will be more similar to the kind of content that will be used to assess their learning.

We often hear of the negative effect that washback can have but Hughes (2003) points out that we can also achieve beneficial feedback by consciously choosing to test the abilities that we aim to develop. In other words, if we want students to develop communicative competence and, therefore, want the teaching to revolve around a more communicative approach to language teaching and learning, we can start by designing tests or assessment tools that are more communicative.

By highlighting the competences, skills, content or abilities that we want to emphasize in the assessment moments, we can positively change the way lessons are designed. Likewise, if we assess students’ abilities to communicate in a world where English is the global lingua franca, there is a possibility that lessons will consequently decrease the focus on the idealized native speaker supremacy and will embrace more diverse contexts and content.

ELF and assessment

In many tests, students are exposed to samples of language (through listening and reading tasks) that may not be relevant samples of English being used as a lingua franca. As a consequence, even if we communicate an awareness of the importance of exposing learners to a range of speakers and bringing ELF elements to class, many courses and teachers might be tempted to undervalue the importance of developing this kind of work because it will not be an expected component of the assessment framework. In other words, having the knowledge of how to teach lessons that follow ELF principles may not be enough to promote real change in the teaching if assessment tools only resort to native speakers’ input or interactions.

Another language feature that ELF principles have brought to light and may not yet be incorporated in the way we assess refers to students’ production. Knowing that some features of pronunciation, discourse or structure are not so relevant in an ELF perspective may not be enough if the criteria used to assess learners are still built around an ideal language model.

What can we do?

A constant assessment of the way we evaluate learning is highly recommended and should encourage frequent adaptations and improvements since the world changes fast and we are continuously learning more about the teaching and learning process.

Some simple steps that can be taken to make assessment tools mirror real-life interactions more accurately and, as a consequence, influence a more natural and strategic focus on ELF features in our lessons are:

  • Write rubrics for assessment of speaking and writing skills that consider features of ELF, such as a more lenient assessment of some phonological and pragmatic features that do not impact communication as much as once believed (such as long pauses, overlapping speech) or even a greater level of tolerance regarding some morpho-syntactic characteristics (e.g.: omission of the -s in the third person singular)  
  • Select listening samples that display speakers of other languages interacting in English
  • Select reading samples written by speakers of other languages that clearly present ELF features
  • Ensure that strategic competence takes precedence over linguistic accuracy (not every accurate sentence successfully communicates what the speaker intends to convey whereas some speakers, who can use strategies very effectively, might present some inaccuracies but a greater success rate)
  • Allow for international cultural elements of language use that go beyond the American and British stereotypical imagery

Validity and ELF

In summary, by devising assessment tools that consider English as a Lingua Franca in their construct, we might be achieving two important goals that will only benefit our learners:

  • We can trigger a positive washback effect that will encourage course designers and classroom teachers to integrate ELF principles into their practice in order to better prepare students for the tests/assessment
  • We promote more valid assessment tools because they then evaluate learners’ abilities to communicate in a world of mixed nationalities that resort to the English language to connect and express their thoughts – which is a more authentic portrait of the contexts that learners are likely to encounter in the real world.

Reference:

Brown, H. D. (2004) Language Assessment – Principles and Classroom Practice. White Plains, NY:Longman.

Hughes, A. (2003) Testing for Language Teachers. Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University.

About the Author:

Vinicius Nobre is a managing partner at Troika, a start-up in education. He has been working in English Language Teaching since 1995 and has worked as a teacher, teacher educator, academic coordinator, international examiner, education manager and content developer in an array of contexts. Vinnie is a course book writer and has coauthored three methodology books in the field of teaching. His latest book was written with Isabela Villas Boas and is entitled “Getting into ELT assessment”.  He is a tutor in courses for teachers for Cambridge Assessment, past president of the English Teachers’ association in Brazil, a professor for post graduation courses and international MA programs. Vinnie has also published several articles on a variety of topics, written chapters in academic publications and spoken as a guest in many international conferences. 

He graduated from PUC-Rio de Janeiro in English and Portuguese and holds an MA in Language Education from the University of Chichester. He also holds a specialization certificate in Business Management and different teaching certificates.

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