A Historical Review of ELT Assessment

Russell Stannard and Anthony Basiel

A literature review of ELT publications over the past 50 years reveals the shift away from a grammar-focused tradition to real engagement with language in real-world settings (Bachman, online).

Until the 1970s, a general pedagogy for language teaching was based on learning lists of vocabulary, grammatical use, reading comprehension and short essay writing. The learning objectives of many courses centred on the mastery of language structures. The related tasks were comprehension questions which involved reading texts and the production of short written answers.

This assessed work tended to focus on the accuracy of the written answers in terms of their grammar, correct spelling and syntax. There was often no requirement to show any real understanding of the text. Language was not really viewed from a perspective of communication or use, but rather on the learners’ exposure to the mechanics of language.

Language was learned about; it was not necessarily used for anything. The modality of most assessment was written and tested procedural knowledge through the memorisation of vocabulary lists and certain types of, sometimes obscure, grammatical forms.

My memories of foreign language learning include long lists of vocabulary words and multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and discrete item tests. (Choa, 1999) This contrasts radically with current thinking where the idea is to make our language tests and assessments reflect real language use.

In the 1960s language teaching and assessment began to shift. Prominent authors such as Hymes (1972) began to consider language learning in terms of communicative competence. This stage is often referred to in ELT assessment development as the ‘communicative language teaching (CLT)’ approach. This paradigm shift led to changes in the skills we recognised as being important to learn a language and therefore in the skills we needed to assess and test (Morrow, 1979; Fulcher, 2000).

This shift has continued and recent reviews of the changing approaches to language teaching have seen an increased acceptance of the key role of communication in learning a language (Waters, 2012).

Before the shift to a more communicative approach to language learning, formal language exams had a very narrow focus. Reading assessment centred on comprehension while writing was little more than the parroting of learned formulas. No attention was paid to learning sub-skills like skimming and scanning, for example. The process of writing and organising a text and planning it was almost ignored; the idea of portfolio assessment and doing drafts and re-drafts was almost non-existent.

Most writing tasks were assessed in a similar way to grammar. The assessment criterion was the correct use of the language rather than the appropriate application of content, meaning and ideas. The interest was always on the product and not the process. Some of the first communicative language tests were designed and developed by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), though in the USA focus on oral exams had actually begun back in the late 1950s with the Foreign Service Institute (Fulcher, 2000).

We saw quite substantial changes in many of the more formal exams and UCLES introduced a pair-examined oral component, mirroring the changes that were taking place in classroom practice (Taylor, 2006). Firstly, this form of assessment reflected the fact that it was being recognised that we needed to assess the oral skills of our students, but secondly it also reflected the fact that a lot of oral work in the classroom was being conducted in pairs as a communicative methodology began to creep into classrooms. So, the paradigm shift in teaching and learning a language led to a paradigm shift in what we assessed too.

By the beginning of the 1970s assessment had moved towards communication. We learn language so that we can communicate better with others. We stopped just focusing on grammar and developed a wider perspective that viewed language learning in terms of ability to communicate and use the language.

The term ‘communicative competence’ (i.e. our ability to communicate and put our ideas across either in the written or spoken form) became important. New skills were recognised as central to our ability to communicate, including the organisation and planning of text, pronunciation, the ability to paraphrase, the ability to turn take and engage in a conversation. These new skills also needed to be assessed.

The change in the way we teach and learn languages did not stop evolving with the development of CLT. There have been a number of emerging ideas that have impacted on our current view of teaching and learning. Indeed, a lot of teachers do not subscribe to any specific methodology or approach, but rather take an eclectic view of language learning which incorporates the best bits from a range of approaches or methodologies; we often describe the era we are in now as a post-method era (Kumarvalivedu, 1994).

There has been a lot of interest in autonomous learning, in making learning more authentic and related to real situations or work-related contexts (often called task based learning) and in social interactions that aid learning (Vygotsky, 1962).

The emergence of constructivism has been enthusiastically received by the CLT community since there are parallels in the two approaches. Learning a language is an active, mainly social process where a learner develops and builds his own constructs through interacting and using the language.

Language is not handed down to the user from the teacher; rather it is learned and built up through the interactions with other learners (O’Dwyer, 2006). The view that classroom knowledge is socially constructed rather than being merely transmitted from teacher to student has made a significant impact in English language teaching. (Smith, 2001: 221).

Social constructivism has had an impact right across the sphere of education. It fits well with the idea that language is learned through communication and use of the language, rather than by simply learning about the language.

Social constructivists see the individual as an active participant in their own learning, bringing to the table their prior knowledge and experience.

Many studies have shown that students’ abilities to understand something new depends on what they already know. (Mayes and De Freitas, 2004: 15) Through engaging and working with others, sharing ideas and collaborating, students learn. Of course constructivists are not suggesting that we can’t learn from reading or listening (a type of dialogue takes place in our mind when we read or listen to something), but the emphasis does centre around the social impact of learning.

There is no doubt that teaching and learning involves a much broader range of activity than in previous times; teachers are expected to find ways of teaching all four skills, so assessing the learning that takes place has also become more complex. However, it is our view that we have developed a better understanding of the conditions that can help students to learn language, and that we have also developed a better understanding of what effective and useful assessments might include.

Our experience from talking to teachers suggests that perhaps there is a lag between changes in teaching methodologies and the related ways to assess. So, for example, many of the teachers we spoke to in our research were using technology in their classes, working in groups and pairs and setting up collaborative activities, and yet their assessments were quite traditional. Sometimes this is because the teacher makes the changes in the classroom teaching but the assessments are set more centrally, as discussed above, and so the teacher has less influence over any changes. Another reason might be that the teacher first wants to see if the experimental ideas they attempt in class work well, and then if they do, they begin to think about how to assess them.

Technology has played a role in assessment for a long time but with the introduction of the internet, of Web 2.0 technologies and now mobile technologies, the role technology can play is greater than ever. There will be many teachers out there who are using technology in their assessments, but in general it is still not the case. The large majority of assessments are still paper-based and the use of ICT for assessment, just like the use of ICT for teaching, is still at a very experimental stage. Technology often bemuses teaches because it changes so fast. It is ‘constantly evolving’ (Beatty 2010: 8) and it is nearly impossible for teaching and learning to keep up with these changes. Try not to worry about this. Choose technologies that fit well with your assessment criteria and that will broaden your assessment base and don’t worry whether they are the latest thing or not.

Our view is that ICT can offer great affordances to assessment and we encourage you to make use of it, and in doing so hopefully broaden your assessment base. Try it on informal assessments with your class and gather plenty of feedback from your students. Remember, most teachers tend to introduce it step by step. You will certainly change and adapt your assessments as you learn more from using them. Most of the teachers we spoke to said their students were very supportive. It will be a step-by-step process but one that both you and your teachers will find very rewarding.

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