LINGUIST List 22.3419

Tue Aug 30 2011

Review: Applied Linguistics: McKay (2010)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

        1.     Pia Sundqvist , Assessing Young Language Learners

Message 1: Assessing Young Language Learners
Date: 30-Aug-2011
From: Pia Sundqvist <>
Subject: Assessing Young Language Learners
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AUTHOR: McKay, PennyTITLE: Assessing Young Language LearnersSERIES TITLE: Cambridge Language Assessment SeriesPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2010

Pia Sundqvist, Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Education, KarlstadUniversity.


The book ''Assessing Young Language Learners'' was first published in 2006. A newedition was published in 2010 and the current review is based on thatpublication. The main purpose of the book is to provide a comprehensiveframework for the assessment of young language learners in both foreign andsecond language learning situations.


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

Chapter 2 (34 pages) focuses on defining ''what is meant by language use abilityand 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 abilityto use the language for the purpose of achieving a particular goal or objectivein 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 linguisticinterdependence (his collected works available in Baker & Hornberger, 2001),Skehan's (1998) dual-mode system, and Schumann's (1997) appraisal system. It isclearly stated that both sociocultural and cognitive perspectives are relevantto second language acquisition (SLA). There is also a discussion about theinfluence of language curricula and external tests on language learning andassessment. One section in the chapter describes the components of children'slanguage 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, theCommon European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) could equally wellbe used.

Chapter 3 (35 pages) is called ''Research into the assessment of young languagelearners''. The purpose of this chapter is to outline the scope of recentresearch 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 ofYLLs, such as the lack of consensus about proficiency, varying languageprograms, and variable teacher expertise with regard to assessment. In addition,McKay gives an account of the purposes for assessment research in young learnereducation and, furthermore, emphasizes the need to investigate (and share)information about assessment practices. According to the author, new research iscalled for in several areas, not least regarding teacher classroom assessment.Some examples of research are laid out, for example Hasselgren (2000) andCarpenter, Fujii, and Kataoka (1995). The author identifies four purposes forresearch (which then are used for organizing the discussion): (1) to investigateand share information; (2) to ensure valid and fair assessment; (3) to learnmore about the nature of YLLs' language proficiency and growth; and (4) toinvestigate 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 ofvarious principles and frameworks. The chapter is fairly long and closes with adetailed appendix (Table 4.4, pp. 136-139) in the form of a template forchecking task characteristics for YLLs. Tasks are defined as activities thatinvolve learners in ''purposeful, goal-oriented language use, specific to acertain situation'' (p. 134). The author argues that assessment is best donethrough samples of YLLs' real language use and, therefore, teachers andassessors need to select ''useful'' tasks. McKay proposes that tasks should beanalyzed for their usefulness with the help of a framework of taskcharacteristics. In order to help readers understand the procedure, threeanalyses of tasks are checked for (a) authenticity, (b) fairness, and (c) theneed for extra support.

Chapter 5 (35 pages) is concerned with classroom assessment, also called teacherassessment. According to McKay, such assessment is ''the cornerstone ofassessment for young learners'' (p. 173). The chapter begins by discussing fourtypes of assessment: formative, summative, on-the-run (i.e., assessment that iscarried out ''for formative purposes to observe and note children's relevantabilities as they happen'', p. 144), and planned assessment. Then follow foursections: the first is on the influences on classroom assessment (such as systemrequirements, parental and student expectations, and teacher expertise), thesecond deals with the purposes of classroom assessment, and the third sectionelaborates on the three phases that are claimed to underpin all assessmentprocesses (design, operationalization, administration). Finally, the fourthsection concerns strategies in classroom language assessment, such as incidentalobservation, planned observation, observations to check progress againstexternally developed criteria, on-the-run assessment, conferences, various typesof portfolio, self- and peer-assessment, classroom tests, and record keeping.

Chapter 6 (40 pages) focuses on the assessment of oral language, and the aim isto outline what types of oral language expectations young foreign and secondlanguage learners encounter at school and, furthermore, to describe the scope oforal language to be assessed, to give an overview of relevant issues on thetopic and, finally, to demonstrate a number of useful tasks in speaking andlistening. There are also sections with particular focus on how to assessvocabulary and grammar in oral language. Most scholars would probably agree withthe author when she states that oral language is ''the mainstay of both languagelearning and academic learning for young learners and a central tool in teachingand assessment in the classroom'' (p. 176). That being the case, McKay finds itproblematic that assessment of oral language often is excluded in externaltesting (cf. Skolverket, 2004:18; Sundqvist, 2009:2). She discusses therelationship between speaking and writing with the help of Derewianka's (1992)mode continuum (see H. D. Brown & Abeywickrama, 2010 for a slightly differentapproach to the same matter) and argues that the two modes should be treatedseparately in assessment. Moreover, among other things, the author brings upproblems 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 inlanguage curricula for reading and writing. Again McKay makes use of Bachman andPalmer's (1996) theoretical framework in mapping out the two skills. Severalissues related to reading and writing are discussed, including what texts andtasks to use in teaching and the place of vocabulary, grammar, and spellingassessment. As in chapter 6, the author shares many ideas and tasks concerningassessment with the readers. She closes with some strategies for classroomassessment 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 withinformation about how YLLs' performance and progress can be evaluated. Thecharacteristics of good scoring rubrics are discussed and many examples ofcommon types of rubrics that are used around the globe are included, such as theIllinois 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 butsecond 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 suchtests ''invalid and unfair for many second language learners, and hence, thenegative impact can be great'' (p. 351). On the other hand, McKay also shows thatlarge-scale tests do not necessarily have to be high-stakes, using the NorwegianEVA project (Hasselgren, 2000) as an example; a project which shows that theassessment of English in school can be low-stakes and improve formativeassessment in classrooms (p. 349).

Chapter 10 (11 pages) closes the book and aims to set out ''some broad directionswhich require further concentration and attention'' (p. 352) in the field of YLLassessment. Key areas in the future are (a) theories, frameworks, andconnections and (b) professionalism and research. The author identifies a lackof textbooks focusing on YLLs that include language use tasks, something whichmight hamper teachers when they try to teach within a communicative approach.McKay stresses the importance in future research to search for ''connectivepoints'' between foreign and second language learning contexts (p. 356).Teachers' expertise in assessment must be improved, she claims, becauseassessment is an integral and essential part of both teaching and learning. Ifassessment is not integrated into language teaching, the author claims thatteaching is ''diminished considerably'' (p. 356). Another factor identified ascrucial for successful assessment is teachers' beliefs about language learning(cf. Horwitz, 1987 on learner beliefs); teachers are likely to use language useassessment 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 growingfield 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 herpoint of departure Bachman and Palmer (1996), which she relies on heavily andsuccessfully throughout the book. In chapter 3, the author gives a clear accountof four purposes for research (see p. 65 for details) and argues convincinglyfor more research by pinpointing why it is needed, and in what areas. I alsoappreciate the international touch of this particular chapter, with referencesto 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 forinexperienced language teachers. The chapter indeed highlights how importantclassroom assessment is and that it is crucial if language teaching is to becomesuccessful. It is also good that McKay puts some emphasis on the practicalmatters of classroom assessment, stating clearly that, for instance, classroomassessment and record keeping in large language classes out of necessity cannotbe 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 thechapter, standards are analyzed from the perspective of young learners and it isclear that, for example, the CEFR lacks that dimension. One especiallyinteresting aspect that is discussed has to do with standards that are created apriori versus those created a posteriori (e.g. the CEFR). Another gooddiscussion focuses on the difficulty associated with giving clear guidelines inlanguage use assessment. It is simply difficult for criteria to be specific and,although they might be so, teachers still will make individual interpretationsof them. Chapter 9 contains a good discussion about large-scale testing for YLLSand balances well with the previous chapter. The final chapter includespromising ideas for the future.

On the negative side I would like to mention the layout of headings andsubheadings. They were hard to discriminate between, making it difficult to knowwhat level one was reading at, so to speak. In terms of content, when immersionwas discussed, I missed a discussion of Content and Language Integrated Learningprograms, i.e. the European version of immersion. Such a discussion would havemade the book even more general than it is. Another thing that could have beendeveloped further relates to the discussion about the role of support (alsoknown as accommodation) in mainstream classroom assessment versus the aim ofmeasurement experts, namely to ''see exact comparisons amongst learners'' (p.125). At least in my opinion, many language teachers often struggle betweenproviding support -- to accommodate their teaching and assessment to individuallearner's needs -- and following stipulated guidelines in, for example,high-stakes tests/assessment. It was surprising that the author left thatdiscussion more or less uncommented upon. In addition, I was surprised there isno new preface in the new edition. But, as has hopefully been made clear in thisreview, ''Assessing Young Language Learners'' is overall a very good book andwarmly recommended.


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

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

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

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

Carpenter, K., Fujii, N., & Kataoka, H. (1995). An oral interview procedure forassessing 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.: GeorgetownUniversity 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 oralassessment. Language Testing, 26(3), 367-396.

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

Hasselgren, A. (2000). The assessment of the English ability of young learnersin 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 oralproficiency 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:Blackwell.

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

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

Sundqvist, P. (2009). Extramural English matters: Out-of-school English and itsimpact on Swedish ninth graders' oral proficiency and vocabulary. PhD, KarlstadUniversity 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.

Page Updated: 30-Aug-2011