Foreign Language Assessment: Knowing about language and doing something with language

Assessments often focus on knowing about the language at the exclusion of what the student can do with the language.  Below are some guidelines to help distinguish these two practices.  Take some time to find the balance of assessing what students can do with the language (context-based) and what they know about the language (minimal context).  I focus on the language particulars more when tasks involve writing and more on what students can do with the language when speaking.

Foreign Language Assessment: Knowing about language and doing something with language (French, Spanish)

These are some assessment characteristics that show what students know about  language:

  • They assess discrete points.
  • The answers are either right or wrong.
  • They are easily and quickly scored.
  • They test language content: vocabulary, grammar, and culture.
  • They involve the lower-level thinking skills of knowledge and comprehension.
  • They are usually given in formal testing periods.

These are some assessment characteristics that show what students can do with language:

  • They require that students create a product or do a demonstration.
  • They are scored holistically.
  • They are task-based.
  • The tasks are situation-based or use real-world content.
  • They involve higher-level thinking skills of application, integration, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • They are given in both formal and informal testing situations.

Take a look at the tasks and activities that you give students and determine what it is that they are actually assessing.  Are they focused on what students know about the language or what they can do with the language?

Activities that show what students know about language:

  • True/false
  • Multiple choice
  • Fill in the blanks
  • Match
  • Give the correct form of the noun, adjective, verb
  • Change one word for another, e.g. noun for pronoun
  • State the facts
  • Translate
  • Follow the model
  • Repeat, recite
  • Answer the questions

Activities that show what students can do with the language:

  • Complete the sentence logically.
  • State your opinion, thoughts, or comments.
  • Give personal answers.
  • Create a situation.
  • Seek information.
  • Develop a product, e.g. advertisement, brochure, collage, poem, song, essay, video, etc.
  • Demonstrate your knowledge.
  • Summarize, paraphrase.
  • Change the ending.

Find the balance in assessment and make sure that there are opportunities for students to demonstrate what they can do with the language in addition to what they know about it.

6 responses to “Foreign Language Assessment: Knowing about language and doing something with language

  1. I found it interesting when you said, “vocabulary and structure mastery are essential to using the language and this knowledge about a language is a first step in using the language to communicate.” How do you know this is true?

    • jos76

      This comment is in response to lots of published research on communicative language teaching and ACFTL that is very anecdotal in nature. I have studied, researched and taughta great as a applied linguist and language teacher and I find that the new way of “just teach them to talk and don’t worry about the grammar and vocabulary” approach leaves one to believe that language learning happens due to exposure and nothing more. Before communicating at any level one needs to have some idea of how to structure a sentence and what the words are that are needed. To deny this would mean that speaking a new language would be due to the memorizing of functional language chunks (helpful for early learners) and not being able to create novel utterances. This screams of behaviorism which claims that language learning is just the learning of set sentences without understanding the structure. This is the exact opposite of the innatist, constructavist, interactionist (communicative) view of language learning. To sum up, I am pointing out in this entry that you can’t begin to use a language without any knowledge of how it is structured.

      • Thank you for you reply. I believe that in language acquisition the learner must attend to form (grammar) in some way, and that teachers generally recognize this. The debate seems to be what the best way is for accomplishing this; whether grammar must be learned before communication can take place, or whether it is learned through the act of communication. I read an interesting article at that termed this as “a priori” grammar vs. “emergent” grammar. I’ve also been reading an interesting book called “Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen” where the authors cite interesting research about language teaching and learning. Thank you again for your response.

      • jos76

        I studied “Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen” when I was studying Applied linguistics and psycholinguitics when I was in grad school. I agree that Van Patten does include some interesting research to consider. However, you will notice throughout all of the examples of focusing in form in the book that the learner needs to have a solid understanding of the other structures and forms in the sentence in order to make sense of the new structure.

  2. Josephine Andrews

    I am so stoked to know that I am not a lone crazy voice crying in the wilderness against the lovely sounding, but in reality impractical view of “just teach them to talk and don’t worry about the grammar and vocabulary”. I was shocked to see my contention that “you can’t [begin] to use a language without any knowledge of how it’s constructed” actually being stated by someone else, a qualified someone else. I have been vilified and disdained for this belief, even labeled ´old school’, but I still contend that if you don’t know how it works, you can only repeat what you have memorized, won’t understand much of what is said to you. Communication means sharing and expressing ideas, and if you do not know how to produce mutually intelligible language, there is no communication – and to produce original utterances to commonicate your original ideas, you need to know how it works i.e., grammar and vocabulary.

  3. FrustratedFloridaFLteacher

    A related but somewhat off-topic comment: My current middle school students are products of the ‘don’t worry about spelling / grammar / parts of speech, etc… they’ll learn it on their own as they go’ trend. Now it is so much harder to teach them a 2nd language because they have virtually no grammatical understanding of their native tongue. Of course 1st and 2nd language acquisition are different but this ‘meh… they’ll figure it out’ has not served us well thus far in my opinion.

    More on point with the article, I really like the lists of the ‘know about’ and ‘do with’ assessment characteristics. Making the transition from testing what students know about a language to the more proficiency-based tasks showing what they can ‘do with’ skills is challenging at times. Scoring ‘can do’ assessments takes a lot more time and effort than those old-style knowledge-based quizzes but it is much more important (and useful) for students to realize what they can actually DO than simply learning a list of words / verb forms for a test. Thank for compiling these lists.

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