[lg policy] book review: Assessing Young Language Learners

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 31 13:43:04 UTC 2011

Assessing Young Language Learners
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Language Assessment Series
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Pia Sundqvist, Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Education, Karlstad


The book ''Assessing Young Language Learners'' was first published in
2006. A new
edition was published in 2010 and the current review is based on that
publication. The main purpose of the book is to provide a comprehensive
framework for the assessment of young language learners in both foreign and
second language learning situations.


Chapter 1 (25 pages) gives the readers an introduction to the special case of
young learner language assessment. Various language programs are discussed, for
example foreign versus second language programs and immersion, and the special
characteristics of young language learners (henceforth YLLs) are introduced.
With regard to YLLs, there is a focus on growth (cognitive, social and
emotional, physical), literacy, and vulnerability.

Chapter 2 (34 pages) focuses on defining ''what is meant by language use ability
and makes a case for the assessment of language use'' (p. 26). The definition of
'language use ability' is adapted from Bachman and Palmer (1996): ''the ability
to use the language for the purpose of achieving a particular goal or objective
in a particular situation'' (p. 27). Moreover, the author centers on YLLs'
developing new identities with the help of, in particular, Cummins' (1980, 1983)
ideas of social and academic language as well as his concept of linguistic
interdependence (his collected works available in Baker & Hornberger, 2001),
Skehan's (1998) dual-mode system, and Schumann's (1997) appraisal system. It is
clearly stated that both sociocultural and cognitive perspectives are relevant
to second language acquisition (SLA). There is also a discussion about the
influence of language curricula and external tests on language learning and
assessment. One section in the chapter describes the components of children's
language use ability, based on Bachman and Palmer's (1996) framework:
organizational knowledge (grammatical and textual) and pragmatic knowledge
(functional and sociolinguistic). Here, McKay points out that, for example, the
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) could equally well
be used.

Chapter 3 (35 pages) is called ''Research into the assessment of young language
learners''. The purpose of this chapter is to outline the scope of recent
research into the assessment of YLLs, which in all is a new field of research.
As the author states, chapter 3 basically underpins the rest of the book (p.
62). She concludes that there are certain barriers for researching assessment of
YLLs, such as the lack of consensus about proficiency, varying language
programs, and variable teacher expertise with regard to assessment. In addition,
McKay gives an account of the purposes for assessment research in young learner
education and, furthermore, emphasizes the need to investigate (and share)
information about assessment practices. According to the author, new research is
called for in several areas, not least regarding teacher classroom assessment.
Some examples of research are laid out, for example Hasselgren (2000) and
Carpenter, Fujii, and Kataoka (1995). The author identifies four purposes for
research (which then are used for organizing the discussion): (1) to investigate
and share information; (2) to ensure valid and fair assessment; (3) to learn
more about the nature of YLLs' language proficiency and growth; and (4) to
investigate and improve the impact of assessment on YLLs (see pp. 95-96).

Chapter 4 (42 pages) deals with the assessment of language use through tasks,
and McKay sets out to show how such tasks can be selected with the help of
various principles and frameworks. The chapter is fairly long and closes with a
detailed appendix (Table 4.4, pp. 136-139) in the form of a template for
checking task characteristics for YLLs. Tasks are defined as activities that
involve learners in ''purposeful, goal-oriented language use, specific to a
certain situation'' (p. 134). The author argues that assessment is best done
through samples of YLLs' real language use and, therefore, teachers and
assessors need to select ''useful'' tasks. McKay proposes that tasks should be
analyzed for their usefulness with the help of a framework of task
characteristics. In order to help readers understand the procedure, three
analyses of tasks are checked for (a) authenticity, (b) fairness, and (c) the
need for extra support.

Chapter 5 (35 pages) is concerned with classroom assessment, also called teacher
assessment. According to McKay, such assessment is ''the cornerstone of
assessment for young learners'' (p. 173). The chapter begins by discussing four
types of assessment: formative, summative, on-the-run (i.e., assessment that is
carried out ''for formative purposes to observe and note children's relevant
abilities as they happen'', p. 144), and planned assessment. Then follow four
sections: the first is on the influences on classroom assessment (such as system
requirements, parental and student expectations, and teacher expertise), the
second deals with the purposes of classroom assessment, and the third section
elaborates on the three phases that are claimed to underpin all assessment
processes (design, operationalization, administration). Finally, the fourth
section concerns strategies in classroom language assessment, such as incidental
observation, planned observation, observations to check progress against
externally developed criteria, on-the-run assessment, conferences, various types
of portfolio, self- and peer-assessment, classroom tests, and record keeping.

Chapter 6 (40 pages) focuses on the assessment of oral language, and the aim is
to outline what types of oral language expectations young foreign and second
language learners encounter at school and, furthermore, to describe the scope of
oral language to be assessed, to give an overview of relevant issues on the
topic and, finally, to demonstrate a number of useful tasks in speaking and
listening. There are also sections with particular focus on how to assess
vocabulary and grammar in oral language. Most scholars would probably agree with
the author when she states that oral language is ''the mainstay of both language
learning and academic learning for young learners and a central tool in teaching
and assessment in the classroom'' (p. 176). That being the case, McKay finds it
problematic that assessment of oral language often is excluded in external
testing (cf. Skolverket, 2004:18; Sundqvist, 2009:2). She discusses the
relationship between speaking and writing with the help of Derewianka's (1992)
mode continuum (see H. D. Brown & Abeywickrama, 2010 for a slightly different
approach to the same matter) and argues that the two modes should be treated
separately in assessment. Moreover, among other things, the author brings up
problems associated with assessing individual learners in conversational tasks,
where the role of the interlocutor becomes relatively important (cf. A. Brown,
2003; Davis, 2009; Sandlund & Sundqvist, 2011).

Chapter 7 (46 pages) outlines the scope of goals and learning objectives in
language curricula for reading and writing. Again McKay makes use of Bachman and
Palmer's (1996) theoretical framework in mapping out the two skills. Several
issues related to reading and writing are discussed, including what texts and
tasks to use in teaching and the place of vocabulary, grammar, and spelling
assessment. As in chapter 6, the author shares many ideas and tasks concerning
assessment with the readers. She closes with some strategies for classroom
assessment and tasks that are suitable for both formal testing and
classroom use.

Chapter 8 (50 pages) is the longest chapter in the book and dense with
information about how YLLs' performance and progress can be evaluated. The
characteristics of good scoring rubrics are discussed and many examples of
common types of rubrics that are used around the globe are included, such as the
Illinois Foreign Language Learning Standards, the CEFR, and the Australian
(NLLIA) ESL band-scales.

Chapter 9 (36 pages) highlights the pros and cons of large-scale tests for YLLs.
A huge problem with such tests is that they are normed on native speakers but
second language learners are still required to take the tests. Consequently,
bias is created from the beginning, in the design phase. The phases that follow
-- operationalization and implementation -- perpetuate this bias and make such
tests ''invalid and unfair for many second language learners, and hence, the
negative impact can be great'' (p. 351). On the other hand, McKay also
shows that
large-scale tests do not necessarily have to be high-stakes, using the Norwegian
EVA project (Hasselgren, 2000) as an example; a project which shows that the
assessment of English in school can be low-stakes and improve formative
assessment in classrooms (p. 349).

Chapter 10 (11 pages) closes the book and aims to set out ''some broad
which require further concentration and attention'' (p. 352) in the field of YLL
assessment. Key areas in the future are (a) theories, frameworks, and
connections and (b) professionalism and research. The author identifies a lack
of textbooks focusing on YLLs that include language use tasks, something which
might hamper teachers when they try to teach within a communicative approach.
McKay stresses the importance in future research to search for ''connective
points'' between foreign and second language learning contexts (p. 356).
Teachers' expertise in assessment must be improved, she claims, because
assessment is an integral and essential part of both teaching and learning. If
assessment is not integrated into language teaching, the author claims that
teaching is ''diminished considerably'' (p. 356). Another factor identified as
crucial for successful assessment is teachers' beliefs about language learning
(cf. Horwitz, 1987 on learner beliefs); teachers are likely to use language use
assessment if they believe that their students learn language through
the use of it.


My overall impression of ''Assessing Young Language Learners'' is very positive.
It is a much-needed book that makes an important contribution to the growing
field of research about YLLs. In addition, it is well written. In the book,
McKay builds a comprehensive framework for the assessment of YLLs taking as her
point of departure Bachman and Palmer (1996), which she relies on heavily and
successfully throughout the book. In chapter 3, the author gives a clear account
of four purposes for research (see p. 65 for details) and argues convincingly
for more research by pinpointing why it is needed, and in what areas. I also
appreciate the international touch of this particular chapter, with references
to research from around the globe and examples of standards and band-scales.

Chapter 5 is very ''hands-on'' thanks to the great many figures that are used.
These figures are informative and would be particularly helpful for
inexperienced language teachers. The chapter indeed highlights how important
classroom assessment is and that it is crucial if language teaching is to become
successful. It is also good that McKay puts some emphasis on the practical
matters of classroom assessment, stating clearly that, for instance, classroom
assessment and record keeping in large language classes out of necessity cannot
be done in the same manner as in small-sized classes.

By illustrating with examples from the USA, Europe, and Australia in chapter 8,
McKay makes a much-appreciated effort to reach an international audience. In the
chapter, standards are analyzed from the perspective of young learners and it is
clear that, for example, the CEFR lacks that dimension. One especially
interesting aspect that is discussed has to do with standards that are created a
priori versus those created a posteriori (e.g. the CEFR). Another good
discussion focuses on the difficulty associated with giving clear guidelines in
language use assessment. It is simply difficult for criteria to be specific and,
although they might be so, teachers still will make individual interpretations
of them. Chapter 9 contains a good discussion about large-scale testing for YLLS
and balances well with the previous chapter. The final chapter includes
promising ideas for the future.

On the negative side I would like to mention the layout of headings and
subheadings. They were hard to discriminate between, making it difficult to know
what level one was reading at, so to speak. In terms of content, when immersion
was discussed, I missed a discussion of Content and Language Integrated Learning
programs, i.e. the European version of immersion. Such a discussion would have
made the book even more general than it is. Another thing that could have been
developed further relates to the discussion about the role of support (also
known as accommodation) in mainstream classroom assessment versus the aim of
measurement experts, namely to ''see exact comparisons amongst learners'' (p.
125). At least in my opinion, many language teachers often struggle between
providing support -- to accommodate their teaching and assessment to individual
learner's needs -- and following stipulated guidelines in, for example,
high-stakes tests/assessment. It was surprising that the author left that
discussion more or less uncommented upon. In addition, I was surprised there is
no new preface in the new edition. But, as has hopefully been made clear in this
review, ''Assessing Young Language Learners'' is overall a very good book and
warmly recommended.


Bachman, L. F., & Palmer, A. S. (1996). Language testing in practice: Designing
and developing useful language tests. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baker, C., & Hornberger, N. H. (2001). An introductory reader to the writings of
Jim Cummins. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Brown, A. (2003). Interviewer variation and the co-construction of speaking
proficiency. Language Testing, 20(1), 1-25.

Brown, H. D., & Abeywickrama, P. (2010). Language assessment. Principles and
classroom practices (2 ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Carpenter, K., Fujii, N., & Kataoka, H. (1995). An oral interview procedure for
assessing second language abilities in children. Language Testing,
12(2), 157-175.

Cummins, J. (1980). The construct of proficiency in bilingual education. In J.
E. Alatis (Ed.), Georgetown University round table on languages and linguistics:
Current issues in bilingual education (pp. 81-103). Georgetown, D.C.: Georgetown
University Press.

Cummins, J. (1983). Language proficiency and academic achievement. In J. W.
Oller (Ed.), Isssues in language testing research (pp. 108-126). Rowley, MA:
Newbury House.

Davis, L. (2009). The influence of interlocutor proficiency in a paired oral
assessment. Language Testing, 26(3), 367-396.

Derewianka, B. (1992). Assessing oral language. In B. Derewianka (Ed.), Language
assessment in primary classrooms (pp. 68-102). Marrickville, NSW: Harcourt Brace

Hasselgren, A. (2000). The assessment of the English ability of young learners
in Norwegian schools: an innovative approach. Language Testing, 17(2), 261-277.

Horwitz, E. K. (1987). Surveying student beliefs about language learning. In A.
Wenden & J. Rubin (Eds.), Learner strategies in language learning (pp. 119-129).
London: Prentice Hall.

Sandlund, E., & Sundqvist, P. (2011). Managing task-related trouble in L2 oral
proficiency tests: Contrasting interaction data and rater asssessment.
Novitals-ROYAL (Research on Youth and Language), 5(1), 91-120.

Schumann, J. H. (1997). The neurobiology of affect in language. Malden, MA:

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Skolverket. (2004). Engelska i åtta europeiska länder: En undersökning av
ungdomars kunskaper och uppfattningar (Rapport 242). Stockholm: Skolverket.

Sundqvist, P. (2009). Extramural English matters: Out-of-school English and its
impact on Swedish ninth graders' oral proficiency and vocabulary. PhD, Karlstad
University Studies, 2009:55, Karlstad. Retrieved from


Dr. Sundqvist is a senior lecturer at the English Department, Faculty
of Arts and Education, Karlstad University, Sweden. She currently
teaches linguistics, advanced academic writing, ESL/EFL teaching
methodology, and continuing professional development courses involving
for example ESL/EFL teaching methodology and the use of ICT in
language teaching. Her main research interests are in the field of
second language acquisition and include extramural/informal learning
of English, assessment, L2 vocabulary acquisition, and oral
proficiency in English.


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