Shiken: JALT Testing & Evaluation SIG Newsletter
Vol. 10 No. 1. Mar. 2006. (p. 2 - 7) [ISSN 1881-5537]

Theoretical frameworks of testing in SLA:
Processing perspectives and strategies in testing situations

by Kayo Yoshida   (Kansai Gaidai University)


This paper highlights some historical developments in language testing since the 1970's to the present and describes fundamental concepts and criteria which are thought to underpin good language testing. Discussing the importance of the interface and different perspectives between Language Testing (LT) and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research, the author focuses on two studies by Skehan (1998) and Cohen (1998) which explore learners' test-taking process and strategies. This article suggests that it is essential to examine not only final linguistic products of tests but also the entire test taking process to make language tests more communicatively relevant.

language testing, test-taking strategies, test-taking process, historical developments, theoretical frameworks, SLA

本稿は、1970年代から現在にわたる語学試験の歴史的発展に焦点を置き、良い語学試験の土台と考えられる根本的概念と基準について理論を展開する。 言語試験分野 (Language Testing)と第二外国語習得分野 (Second Language Acquisition) の両分野間における研究の接点と相違点の重要性を議論するため、学習者のテスト受験過程とストラテジーについて調査したSkehan (1998)とCohen (1998) による2つの研究に焦点をあてた。示唆するところは、語学試験をより適切なコミュニカティブ要素に富むものにしていくためには、試験最終段階の言語生産物(テスト結果)のみを見るのではなく、テスト受験全体のプロセスを考察していくことが不可欠ということである。

Keywords: 語学試験(テスト)、テスト・ストラテジー、テスト解答のプロセス、歴史的発展、

Testing is considered a way to systematically measure a person's ability or knowledge, and it is formalized as a set of techniques or procedures (Brown, 2001). Testing also plays an important part in language learning and evaluation in classroom settings. In fact, a number of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Language Testing (LT) researchers have discussed the roles of testing and its development in their fields. This paper provides a historical overview of the development of those views over the last three decades. Some fundamental concepts and criteria for good language testing will be also examined. Next, after pointing out some different viewpoints between SLA and LT, I will further explore roles of language testing in SLA research by focusing on the knowledge and ability which underlie learners' performance. Lastly, on the basis of two key SLA studies, I will argue that, in order to improve the quality of language testing and to provide good opportunities for language learning, it is necessary to consider the test-taking process and the strategies required by the communicative approaches which are currently recommended. In this regard Brindley (2001, p.139) states:

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Many language tests and assessments used nowadays often contain tasks which resemble the kinds of language-use situations that test takers would encounter in using the language for communicative purposes in everyday life.

Historical developments in language testing in SLA research

During the 1960s and 1970s, language testing techniques were heavily influenced by structural linguistics (Chew, 2005). The analysis of language favoured by behaviourist approaches (e.g. Skinner) led to discrete point testing, that is to say, tests were designed to assess learners' mastery of different areas of the linguistic system in isolation [e.g. grammatical knowledge, vocabulary, pronunciation etc.] (reported by Bachman & Cohen 1998, Brindley 2001). It was Chomsky (1965) who first rejected such approaches and proposed an underlying rule-based knowledge system. From the early 1970s, however, communicative theories were widely adopted among linguistics and they began to focus on "communicative proficiency rather than on mere mastery of structures" in language teaching (Richards 2001, p.153). This trend significantly influenced the methods of language teaching and roles of language testing, although it is highly possible to assume that some social changes induced new theories at first, and then the theories might be modified to support practice more closely. Hymes took Chomsky's work further, but also reacted against some aspects of it. For Hymes (1972), the social context of language was considered essential and appropriateness was viewed as important as grammatical correctness. Discrete-point teaching and testing models were gradually replaced by models which aimed to integrate the various elements of language learning. A theory of communicative competence was developed further by Canale and Swain (1980). They also raised two controversial issues related to second language teaching and testing which will be explored later:
  1. whether communicative competence and linguistic competence are mutually inclusive or separate,
  2. whether one can usually distinguish between communicative competence and performance (Spolsky 1985, p.183)
According to the new trends mentioned above by Richards (2001), since the 1970s language testers have been seeking more pragmatic and integrative questions for assessment, such as cloze tests and dictations. McNamara (2000, pp.14-15) points out the need by stating:
the necessity of assessing the practical language skills of foreign students led to a demand for language tests which involved an integrated performance on the part of the language user. The discrete point tradition of testing was seen as focusing too exclusively on knowledge of the formal linguistic system for its own sake rather than the way such knowledge is used to achieve communication.

For instance, Oller (1979) proposed the Unitary Competence Hypothesis, which reflects the view that "performance on a whole range of tests depends on the same underlying capacity in the learner - the ability to integrate grammatical, lexical, contextual, and pragmatic knowledge in test performance (McNamara 2000, p.15)". This theory, however, is no longer accepted as a possible model of how language is processed.
In these days, with the widespread adoption of communicative language teaching (CLT) principles, language tests tend to include more practical tasks predicting the real-world settings (see Brindley, 2001). Although we still can encounter many discrete point questions, recent tests seem to have more diversity and alternative evidence for assessment congruent with the communicative paradigm. For example oral examinations such as role-play of speech acts, structured interview and information gap exercises contain tasks which reflect real-life demands are now common in many language tests.

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Fundamental concepts of good language testing

Although language testing has been influenced by social changes such as those described above, there are certain fundamental aspects which remain widely accepted. According to Bell (1981, pp.197-198), it is important to bear in mind what a test actually tests and how well it does so. Bell's view may be considered together with Harris' analysis (1969, pp.21-22) which suggests that there are three key criteria to evaluate any 'good' test, namely, reliability, validity and practicality.
It [a good test] must be reliable, that is, it must consistently give the same results under different conditions. It must also be valid, that is, it should really measure what it is supposed to measure. Testing experts also advise us to make sure a test is practical, that it is economical, easy to score, and easy to interpret.

Validity is particularly complex and may be broken down into a number of facets, including content validity, criterion-related validity, construct validity, and face validity (see Hughes, 1989, pp.22-28). Bachman (2004, p.5) develops these views with six criteria for test usefulness: reliability, construct validity, authenticity, interactiveness, impact and practicality. He examines the processes and strategies that test takers use by investigating their individual responses and scores, in order to evaluate the test usefulness. This seems to be the most comprehensive current model for designing, developing and using language tests.
Furthermore, there are other significant factors to take into account in the process of language assessment. We might mention, in particular, the 'test rubrics' [e.g. the systematic procedures used in a test] and the 'test-takers capacities' [i.e. their underlying knowledge and abilities]. These aspects affect test performance in various ways (Chapelle and Brindley, 2002, pp.268-269). Thus, the features described above seem to provide sufficient ground to produce and administer good language tests. However, we still need to examine what we exactly intend to measure; competence or performance, and what the test scores exactly represent; learners' language ability or background knowledge. These two sets of questions, as Canale and Swain proposed above, will be explored in this paper.

Different perspectives in SLA and LT research

As previously stated, both LT and SLA researchers have influenced one another and seem to have common interests and concerns. However, they differ in focus and perspective in some regards. According to Bachman and Cohen (1998, pp.1-5), LT research has concentrated on language test performance and its products, that is, the "results of acquisition". On the other hand, SLA research has been concerned with the "factors and processes" of language acquisition and ability. A main focus has been on the development of interlanguage (see Selinker, 1972). Especially, after the expansion of CLT models in the mid-1970s, SLA researchers began to emphasize language ability as communication by including "non-language" factors such as personality and background knowledge. They began to look more toward the cognitive information-processing involved in learning. For example, Bachman and Palmer (1996) examined the topical knowledge of test-takers [knowledge of the world] and affective schemata [i.e. emotional memories influencing the way test-takers behave].
According to Schachter (1990 cited in Shohamy 1998, p.157), discourse knowledge is also important to involve both cultural conventions and appropriate grammatical choices. Sasaki's (1993) study suggests that second language proficiency is related to general cognitive abilities which include language aptitude and intelligence. Thus, a number of SLA researchers have focused on learners' underlying competence which is likely to influence the performance/products of tests.
Let us now consider how learners' cognitive processes and strategies used during test taking related to the relationship between competence and performance.

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Process and strategies in language testing

Here, we shall focus on the test-taking processes and strategies used for oral communication in particular by drawing on these two recent studies:
  1. "Processing perspectives on testing (pp.153-184)" in A cognitive approach to language learning by Skehan (1998)
  2. "Strategy use in testing situations (pp. 215-263)" in Strategies in learning and using a second language by Cohen (1998)
1. Skehan's study of processing perspectives

A number of researchers have explored the relationship between underlying competence and actual performance. Skehan (1998, pp.168-177) proposed that the testing approach of the "dual-mode" model may be an effective way of explaining this difference especially in terms of assessing productive skills like oral proficiency. The approach consists of abilities-driven scales to measure forms and rules [e.g. grammatical accuracy and complexity] and processing-driven scales which mainly measure meaning and real-time processing [fluency]. Skehan stresses that the idea of a parallel approach contributes to the implications for measuring competence-performance relationships, especially for practical task-based testing. For example, spoken performance is likely to include areas such as grammar, vocabulary, fluency, appropriateness, pronunciation, etc. Therefore, this approach offers a clear division when measuring competence - or performance - based skills, even though the concepts themselves are not clear enough to separate.

2. Cohen's study of strategies in testing situations

Test-taking strategies are frequently researched in SLA. It is widely thought that language-use strategies include retrieval strategies, rehearsal strategies, cover strategies, and communication strategies. Moreover, all four strategies are often involved in test taking (Cohen, 1998). Bachman and Cohen (1998, p.14) mention that language-use strategies are "mental operations or processes" which learners consciously select and apply in order to accomplish language tasks. Cohen stresses the importance of such strategies for producing acceptable answers to questions and tasks before, during and after responding to them. Krashen (1982, p.180) presents an example of a test-taking strategy to a obtain good score:
if the student were able to "cover" the problem with appropriate filler (just a moment . . . what I want to say is . .. how do you say . . . ?), he would not only not be penalized but would be graded up for having the ability to keep the conversation going and not lose the floor! Students would also be given credit for politeness and appropriateness, since a minimum amount of this knowledge is absolutely necessary for successful conversation.
This example shows that the student mainly employs communication strategies by using fillers to gain time to think and appeal for aid from the interlocutor, so as to compensate for missing knowledge as native speakers often do in conversation. Furthermore, Cohen's study focuses on the process and variation of test-taking strategies. He examined 26 advanced English foreign language learners and gave them six speech act situations (2 apologies, 2 complaints, 2 requests) in which they role-played with a native speaker. The number of strategies they used for each task varied. For instance, one student said 'very sorry' in an expression of apology, but reported thinking to herself afterwards that she could have said 'terribly sorry' [- Afterthought -]. This illustrates the existence of a gap between knowledge and performance. Conventional test scores/grades do not always represent the ability of learners.

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Another student in Cohen's study said, "When I start speaking English after not speaking it for a long time, my vocabulary is weak and it is hard to retrieve words from memory" [- Retrieval process -]. In addition, some students planned their answers in their L1, then translated them into a L2. However, others both planned and responded in L2. This suggests that complicated processes are going on in learner's' brains, even when answers seem simple. It was also reported in Cohen's paper that, respondents devoted roughly twice as much attention to grammar than as they did to pronunciation.
In SLA research, it is significant not only to examine learners' final products - the results from testing but also to bear in mind the process how they think, choose and produce the appropriate answers even in testing situation. I believe that this idea may also help improve language tests. Cohen (1998, p.37) emphasizes that testing situations are good opportunities for language learning especially, "if the learner uses strategies for language learning during the testing session". Krashen (1982, p.182) expresses a similar view by mentioning that even communicative testing can contribute to the progress of grammatical accuracy:
if tests . . . encourage students to participate in conversation and develop the skills to manage conversations, they will contribute a great deal to the development of grammatical accuracy in the long run than any other kind of measure.


This article has briefly described a process of evolution in language testing and discussed some aspects of good language testing and its main roles in the SLA area by focusing on learners' test-taking processes and strategies. Considering significant changes which communicative theories brought in language education fields, it is essential not only to consider appropriate testing to assess communicative skills such as oral proficiency but also to bear in mind the cognitive processing strategies of the examinees. It is still difficult clearly to separate the concepts between learner's competence and performance in language test situations. However, the "dual-mode [abilities- /processing-driven] approach" proposed by Skehan (1998) may facilitate the measurement of competence-/performance based skills individually, and may contribute to make measurement methods more effective. In terms of classroom teaching, there might be time constraints to introduce ideal language tests congruent with this view and to assess learners properly due to limited teaching schedules.
Since this paper is merely based on theoretical perspective from the viewpoint of English language in SLA area, it seems possible that the data may not be the same for other languages in different research fields. Despite these limitations, it is hoped to get some idea from this study in designing and developing foreign language tests and then to obtain some evidence to satisfy how they work well for the following studies. For further research, on the basis of Bechman's (2004) study, I shall explore the importance of linking between theoretical features of language testing and practical procedures with statistical data included.


Bachman, L. (2004). Statistical analyses for language assessment. Cambridge: CUP.

Bachman, L. & Cohen, A. D. (1998). Language testing - SLA interfaces: An update. In Bachman, L. & Cohen, A. (Eds.), Interfaces between second language acquisition and language testing research, pp 1-31. Cambridge: CUP.

Bachman, L. & Palmer, A. S. (1996). Language testing in practice. Oxford: OUP.

Bell, R. T. (1981). An introduction to applied linguistics: Approaches and methods in language teaching. London: Batsford Academic & Educational Ltd.

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Brindley, G. (2001). Assessment. In Carter, R. & Nunan, D. (Eds.), Teaching English to speakers of other languages. pp 137-143. Cambridge: CUP.

Brown, H. D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. New York: Longman.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1, 1-47.

Chapelle, A. C. & Brindley, G. (2002). Assessment. In Schmitt, N. (Ed.), An introduction to applied linguistics, pp 267-288. London: Arnold.

Chew, P.G.L. (2005, March). Change and continuity: English language teaching in Singapore. Asian EFL Journal, (7) 1. Retrieved from march_05_pc.php on December 24, 2005.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: CUP.

Cohen, A. D. (1998). Strategies in learning and using a second language. London: Longman.

Harris, D. (1969). Testing English as a second language. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hughes, A. (1989). Testing for language teachers. Cambridge: CUP.

Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In Pride, J. & Holmes, J. (Eds.), Sociolinguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

McNamara, T. (2000). Language testing. Oxford: OUP.

Oller, J. (1979). Language tests at school: A pragmatic approach. London: Longman.

Sasaki, M. (1993). Relationships among second language proficiency, foreign language aptitude, and intelligence: A structural equation modeling approach. Language Learning, 43 (3), pp.313-344.

Schachter, J. (1990). Communicative competence revisited. In Harley, B., Allen, P. & Cummins, J. & Swain, M. (Eds.), The development of second language proficiency. pp 39-49. Cambridge: CUP.

Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10 (3), pp.219-231.

Shohamy, E. (1998). How can language testing and SLA benefit from each other? The case of discourse. in Bachman, L. & Cohen, A. (Eds.), Interfaces between second language acquisition and language testing research, pp 156-176. Cambridge: CUP.

Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: OUP.

Spolsky, B. (1985). What does it mean to know how to use a language? An essay on the theoretical basis of language testing. Language Testing, 2 (2), pp.180-191.

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