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Review of  Assessing the Language of Young Learners

Reviewer: Laura Dubcovsky
Book Title: Assessing the Language of Young Learners
Book Author: Angela Hasselgreen Gwendydd Caudwell
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 28.2704

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Assessing the language of young learners,” by A. Hasselgreen and G. Caudwell, focuses on the language evaluation of children and adolescents, divided into three age groups of 5 to 8, 8 to12, and 12 to 17 years old. The book addresses a general audience of educators, parents and specialists interested in the teaching and testing of young students. It offers a general overview of the current status of assessment, as well as practical criteria given by the Common European Framework of References (CEFR). As explained in the introduction, the book follows a straightforward path, devoting the first part to developmental issues in first and second languages (L1 and L2 respectively) and in making correspondences between developmental stages and the CEFR categories (Chapters 1-3), and the second part to more specific issues of assessment, from general principles to the particular implementation in each language skill (Chapters 4-9). The last chapter offers a summary of the exposed ideas and age range selection, in the light of linguistic, cognitive and social perspectives (Chapter10).

Among key developmental notions, Chapter 1 includes Piaget’s cognitive stages (1926) of sensori-motor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operations. Hasselgreen and Caudwell also focus on the nature and scope of children’s memory for the purposes of storage, attention and recall, and on language components that affect comprehension at an early age, such as a particular lexicon and figurative language, highlighted in meta-analysis studies of L1 acquisition (Nippold 2006). Above all, the authors emphasize the nature of L1 literacy, associated not only to maturity and age, but also to years of schooling and exposure to the environment. They claim that L1 literacy is a presupposition for L2 literacy, and therefore, any assessment–particularly of the written language– may reveal more about literacy than L2 competence.

In Chapter 2 Hasselgreen and Caudwell focus on the L2 development, defined as development of a second, foreign, or acquired language, e.g. any other language than the learners’ mother tongue. They examine L2 knowledge and skills from a communicative perspective, and elevate word and sentence analysis to the macro levels of text and discourse in order to evaluate comprehension. . The authors contribute with an adapted communicative language ability model (Hasselgreen 2004) that highlights factors of maturity, age development, and environment throughout its four components of (1) microlinguistic, (2) textual, (3) sociolinguistic and (4) strategic abilities. The chapter also includes domains of language use, in terms of topics of communication, purposes of communication, participants in communication, channel or media people communicate through, and discourse types/genres of communication.

In Chapter 3 Hasselgreen and Caudwell outline main CEFR and European Language Portfolio (ELP) criteria, frequently used as yardsticks for assessing young learners’ abilities in European settings. The CEFR/ELP framework offers a six-level scale to measure overall proficiency and individualized competencies in reading, listening, writing, spoken interaction and spoken production. Moreover the evaluative references constitute a comprehensive system for understanding language in context, follow an action-oriented approach, and describe language users according to their identity and agency. The authors clarify that although the correspondence between age groups and CEFR levels is not totally clear-cut, it opens up to a better understanding of young learners’ assessment, by refining proficiency levels, estimating duration and ultimate potential achievement, and distinguishing individual and group differences.

Chapter 4 moves from previous developmental concerns to the book core of assessment introducing generalities, principles and purposes, distinguishing between assessment and tests, and underscoring “text plus task” format in the evaluative items. Hasselgreen and Caudwell underline the “what-how-who-why” paradigm that drives the assessment activity and that should be discussed before any further consideration of test types, evaluative formats, multimedia testing, etc. The authors focus on distinctive features that contribute to create a good formative assessment, such as (1) leading classroom discussions and participating in activities and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning; (2) clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success; (3) providing feedback that moves learning forward; (4) activating learners as owners of their own learning; and (5) activating learners as instructional resources for one another (William 2011). They also emphasize the quality and variety of the tasks selected for young learners’ assessment, including cognitive, linguistic, interactional, metalinguistic, environmental and physical tasks (Cameron 2001).

The remaining part of the book addresses the assessment of individualized language skills. Each chapter follows a similar outline: introduction of the particular ability, review of general notions and characteristics, and presentation of an L2 skill model that comprises task features, levels of processing and/or strategies, and topic/language knowledge. Chapters finalize with a comparison between the discussed performance and the CEFR levels likely to be attainable for each age group. In Chapter 5 Hasselgreen and Caudwell focus on the testing of reading. They explain specific subskills of retrieving, interpreting and reflecting, exemplify effective items used in reading tests, and explain the complex reading scoring system. Above all the authors point out the narrow relationship between reading and literacy and the difficulties in separating reading proficiency from developmental issues, background knowledge and metalinguistic awareness during the assessment.

Chapter 6 addresses the testing of writing. Hasselgreen and Caudwell discuss typical stages of the writing process (preparation, planning, monitoring, writing, use of aids and revising) under developmental lenses. The authors elaborate on some of the tasks listed in the L2 writing model, such as stimulus/visual supports, topic, purpose, addressee/role, genre, style/degree of formality, medium, length, and cognitive demands. Finally they summarize CEFR criteria for judging writing across levels, such as spelling and punctuation (lower level), words and phrases (middle level), and use of grammar and organizational structures (upper level). The authors reflect that while L2 reading and writing show common dependence on the gradual development of language and literacy, they also have distinctive receptive/ productive properties that require specific and well-designed tasks to meet the demands of each modality.

The following two chapters center on oral language assessment. Hasselgreen and Caudwell clarify that although speaking and listening are done together, they present them separately for testing purposes. Chapter 7 focuses on testing speaking, highlighting conditions of real time and reciprocacy (Bygate 1987) needed in processing spoken language. Main strategies presented in the L2 speaking model are: planning the message, managing the agenda and turn-taking, negotiating meaning, facilitating and compensating the production, and achieving and reducing skills for communication. The authors describe pronunciation/ intonation, fluency, vocabulary, grammar, and message/tone among main criteria for judging speaking. After the analysis, Hasselgreen and Caudwell conclude that speaking abilities seem to have fewer restraints than reading and writing, especially lacking literate prerequisites at an early age. Even very young learners show ease in uttering sounds and maintaining casual conversations with basic/everyday vocabulary. On the other hand, the assessment of spoken skills becomes more difficult at early age, because of the interaction of several factors during the assessment, such as fewer opportunities for interaction during oral testing, the broad range of assessment tasks, and the variability within the testers' proficiency.
In Chapter 8 Hasselgreen and Caudwell complement previous L2 oral production with L2 oral reception. First they describe inherent properties of listening, such as speech rate, degree of pausing, and familiarity of pronunciation. Then they compare the receptive language skills of listening and reading, which share commonalities of literal and inference items, as well as scales that measure informational, interactional and discursive levels of comprehension in their assessments. Finally the authors present the L2 listening model, highlighting levels of input decoding, lexical search, parsing and discourse construction within the listening process. They also discuss task demands that affect the listening assessment, such as the amount of information to be processed, the location in the text, the familiarity of the presented content and vocabulary, and the immediate or delayed response requested from the learner (Buck 2001).

The two final chapters are brief and concise. Chapter 9 adds the testing of vocabulary and grammar, although these aspects were already integrated with the examined skills of L2 reading, writing, speaking and listening assessments (chapters 5-8). Hasselgreen and Caudwell draw from Read’s dimensions of vocabulary assessment (2000) to contrast traditional ways of testing, which are typically based on discrete, selective and context- independent elements, with current communicative assessments, in which vocabulary and grammar constitute embedded, comprehensive and context- dependent test items (Figure 9.1, p.114). Chapter 10 serves as a brief summary of the two capital issues of the book: cognitive, social and language development notions, and general implications for testing at each age group, reinforced by the visual support of Tables10.1 to 10.4 (pp. 121-124).


“Assessing the language of young learners” is a short and well organized book, in which each chapter constitutes the foundation for the following, which in turn expands topics in a cohesive manner. Hasselgreen and Caudwell contribute their experience and knowledge to highlight main ideas in the field of language assessment for children and adolescents. Their clear explanations are enriched by abundant examples and task-based tests, in line with the Monographs Series’ purposes of providing the readership with theoretical information and practical implications. The chapters also maintain formal similarities, such as the inclusion of figures and tables that facilitate first-sight understanding; examples include the graphical representation of each L2 ability model (Figure 5.1 p.56, Figure 6.1 p.74, Figure 7.1 p.91, and Figure 8.1 p.108, respectively) and the comparative charts between age groups and CEFR levels (Table 3.1 p. 34 and Table 5.1 p.60). The book also adds final appendices that offer detailed information on cognitive, social and language developmental aspects and scales for assessing writing and speaking among teenagers (pp. 133-149).

Hasselgreen and Caudwell claim that the presentation of discrete testing elements and the divisions among reading, writing, speaking, listening abilities in separate chapters are driven by their genuine attempt to better understand the language assessment of young learners. However, they acknowledge that results may turn quite artificial, and advise examining language abilities in a comprehensive and integrated manner. Moreover the authors attempt to overcome traditional dichotomies of receptive versus productive skills and written versus oral modalities, advocating for a fluid literate continuum of blurred borderlines. “Assessing the language of young learners” is a useful manual of task-text items, which follows communicative, dynamic, and enriching principles, based on what children and teenagers are capable of doing in their L2. Although Hasselgreen and Caudwell state that the models, criteria and examples used in the book can be implemented in different languages and settings to inform the delicate area of assessment, they are mainly constrained to the European reality, following European Guidelines, and bringing only English language examples. Finally the offered bibliography is appropriate but a little outdated to respond to current demands for young learners’ assessment.


Buck, G. (2001) Assessing listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bygate, M. (1987) Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching language to young learners. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hasselgreen, A. (2004) Testing the spoken English of young Norwegian: A study of test validity and the role of smallwords in contributing to pupils’ fluency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nippold. M. (2006) Later language development. Austin, Tx: pro-ed.

Piaget, J (1926) The language and thought of the Child. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Read, J. (2000) Assessing vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

William, D (2011) Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.
Laura Dubcovsky was a lecturer and supervisor in the Teacher Education Program from The School of Education at the University of California, Davis. She has a Master’s in Education and a PhD in Spanish linguistics with special emphasis on second language acquisition. Her areas of interest combine the fields of language and bilingual education. She is currently dedicated to the preparation of in service bilingual Spanish/English teachers, especially on the use of Spanish for educational purposes. She collaborates as a reviewer with the Linguistic list serve and bilingual associations, as interpreter in parent/teachers conferences and at the school district, and as translator for outreach programs in museums and school sites, building home/school connections. She has taught a course that addresses Communicative and Academic Spanish needed in a bilingual classroom for more than ten years. She also published the article, Functions of the verb decir (''to say'') in the incipient academic Spanish writing of bilingual children. Functions of Language, 15(2), 257-280 (2008) and the chapter, “Desde California. Acerca de la narración en ámbitos bilingües” In ¿Cómo aprendemos y cómo enseñamos la narración oral? (2015). Rosario, Homo Sapiens:127- 133.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781781794692
Pages: 172
Prices: U.S. $ 100
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781781794708
Pages: 172
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