AUTHOR: McKay, Penny TITLE: 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 University.
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 directions 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.
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Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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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 http://kau.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:275141.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.