Communicative language testing

Teaching and testing are so closely interrelated. It is obvious that the development of different theories and approaches of language learning and teaching also affects the history of language testing. Therefore, it is common to see evolution of both language teaching and language testing. There has been a shift from analytical to integrative approach in both language teaching and language testing falling into three stages: ? Grammar –translation ? Structural ? Communicative ApproachThese three generations of language teaching are seen parallel to three generations of language testing. Through this shift, new ideas about language testing and new ways of evaluating the performance of language learners have emerged. The traditional description led to the teaching and learning of formal patterns of the language and the testing of language structures and vocabulary within a discrete – point single sentence format while the elaboration of communicative competence has had a considerable impact on language testing.

Applied linguistics claimed that communicative language testing means not communicative testing of language, but the testing of communicative language. Thus, what distinguishes communicative language testing is the introduction of real – language input rather than new methodology of testing. As far as testing grammar is concerned, grammar has always been regarded as an important area for testing learner’s language proficiency. It still occupies a major position and is still present in many school examinations and even with commercially available proficiency tests.There is no doubt that this is a category to be measured when investigating an individual’s performance in a language. Thus, a better understanding of the construct of grammar is needed in order to improve the ways in which grammar is tested. However, what is of great importance is the extent to which the role of grammar has to play within communicative competence.

The methods of testing grammar nowadays have been rather limited. Little attention has been given to create unique test designs for testing grammar within a communicative curriculum.Looking at commercially produced tests and available practice materials for tests, there has not much changed in them as there is not much that provides practice for testing communicative grammar communicatively. There is a common practice to test grammatical competence through decontextualised, isolated sentence formats and discrete-point items, which still seems to hold firm in the testing practice although various models of language proficiency have been proposed which advocate the measurement of the constituent parts of language proficiency communicatively.According to some experts, such type of test is non-communicative and context independent. As a reaction against the traditional assessment of using grammatical items divorced from the context, an alternative approach for the assessment of grammar with the notion of contextualizing items in a grammar test was introduced since testers pointed out that with isolated format there is a danger of testing an ability to do particular type of test rather than an ability to use the language. Other attempts to move away from discrete-point, decontextualised test items assessing grammatical competence include a variety of test formats.

These tests measure grammatical competence within the framework of testing global language skills like speaking and writing, and listening and reading. There are views that a test of grammar has to be administered through some medium. Since most of grammar tests are in written form, the test-taker have to read in order to be able to respond to the grammar test items. This caused then the emergence of integrative tests. These integrative tests are often used as instruments for measuring one’s knowledge of ‘the rules in use’ in a specific context of communication.However, because of the in use, a number of issues have been raised by testers as to what language to sample for assessment and against what criteria performance on communicative language should be evaluated in order to ensure the generalisability of the results. Based on the assumption that grammar is central for effective and efficient communication, there have been attempts to describe the nature of instruments for testing grammar communicatively, which, however, does not seem to be adequately specified yet.

It is a fact that in order to measure the ‘rules in use’, communicative grammar should be tested communicatively. Rea Dickins suggests that this can happen only if a test-taker is engaged in a communicative act in contexts that allow for the creation of meaning. Therefore, she claims that the communicative testing of grammar requires a task-based approach, within which there are at least five factors that make a grammar test communicative:

  1. The contextualization of test items: a test should not comprise a number of decontextualised single sentences
  2. The identification of a communicative purpose for the test activity
  3. The identification of an audience to whom the communication is addressed
  4. Instructions to the test taker that focus on meaning rather than on form
  5. The opportunity for the test taker to create his/her own message and to produce grammatical responses as appropriate to a given context

It is obvious that there is still a considerable discrepancy between the theory and practice in communicative grammar testing at our schools. Grammar testing appears not to have kept apace with developments in other areas of language description and language teaching.Moreover, the teachers are not sure about which are the most appropriate ways of testing grammatical competence. These are the following reasons why much grammar testing still reflects the best practice of the traditional method:

  • high reliabilities are appealing to educational decision makers
  • any move away from the objective decontextualised and decomposable approach to grammar testing raises certain difficulties
  • ‘Communicative‘ testing (as indeed teaching) places greater demands on teachers and challenges their ompetence in English
  • More open-ended writing tasks, through which grammar may be tested, require a new set of skills for test design, format, and item writing, with implications for more explicit marking schemes, appropriate design and application of different rating scales.

The teachers prefer using well tried methods to avoid uncertainties about how to test grammar communicatively. It can be the result of constraints imposed by a syllabus, too.Where syllabus and/or textbooks reflect an exclusive form focused approach to teaching grammar, it is no surprise that any grammar testing may be similarly restricted in focus and format.

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