Diagnosing Foreign language Proficiency : The Interface Between Learning and Assessment

Diagnosing Foreign language Proficiency: The Interface Between Learning and Assessment.
Alderson, Charles J. London: Continuum, 2006. Pp. xii + 284.

Deepti Gupta
Panjab University
Chandigarh, India

This volume is mainly an account of the DIALANG project. Its description of the project is very thorough and, in places, quite critical and objective. The reader gets acquainted with the project while getting updated on self assessment in language development.

DIALANG is a European project for the development of diagnostic tests in 14 European languages, made available on the Internet free of charge. It is computer-base and Internet-delivered and offers separate tests for reading, writing, listening grammatical structures and vocabulary from beginner to advanced levels. It directs users so that they can assess their level of proficiency before offering them tests in the area selected; finally giving them feedback on their performance and advice to improve their proficiency. Alderson was the scientific coordinator of the DIALANG project team and in the seventeen chapter volume under review, he presents a rationale for, description of, and advantages of diagnostic tests in language learning and teaching. He uses DIALANG as an instance of such path-breaking pedagogy.

The first eight chapters describe the DIALANG project, devoting a chapter to each aspect. Chapter one examines the teaching/testing interface, building up a case for diagnostic testing in language teaching and learning by describing its advantages. The second chapter looks at the literature available and the various varieties of diagnostic testing created so far. It then concludes by making a case for computer-based diagnostic testing. Chapter three introduces the project and describes the steps that the ALS (Administration Language System) is composed of on the project website. The chapter also guides the reader through the process of using this diagnostic tool. The fourth chapter traces the history of the project while clearly stating that it is yet to stand the test of time. Chapter five presents the statistics collected so far to prove its efficacy. The sixth chapter examines the ticklish issue of standard-setting and how the procedures of the test tackle it.

Chapter seven describes the vocabulary size placement test of the project. A noteworthy aspect of DIALANG is that it works equally smoothly as a diagnostic tool in fourteen European languages and across reading, listening, writing, vocabulary and grammar. It works as a supranational system, so far free of cost. Perhaps these benefits arise out of the inclusion of experts from all 14 language areas. Chapter eight discusses the role of feedback and self-assessment in learners profile-development to round off the description. It also examines closely the whole paradigm of self-assessment in the project and how it works. The strength of the project is the empirical evidence provided by way of data collected in every chapter of the volume under review.

Having established a comprehensive background to DIALANG, the next five chapters examine the five areas of language proficiency tested by the self-assessment system: reading, listening, writing, grammar, and vocabulary. A common framework supports each chapter, aiming towards an ease in readability. Every chapter first considers the construct of the area under discussion and describes the aspect tested in DIALANG; second, the test specifications and their target; third, the individual variables in the area and how they influence development. To conclude, each chapter looks at the pending requirements of dependable assessment in the area. The chapters on grammar and vocabulary take into account the relationship between the macro and micro skills of language as well.

The last four chapters (14 17) establish the dynamism quotient of DIALANG. The place of feedback and advice in the project is considered, quoting extensively from the available data. The essentially experimental nature of the project is defined in terms of the items used in it, with tasks from its website to give a feel of the test items. The pedagogic experiments used in self-assessment in the project and a detailed discussion of the future of diagnostic testing and its relationship with foreign language development make up the last chapter.

This volume is a comprehensive account of the project and is informative. The reader s expectation of a descriptive and detailed account of DIALANG is fulfilled but a negative aspect is that it lacks a critical review of foreign language proficiency tests. The information is provided without any attempt at evaluation or judgement. Another difficulty is that the text sometimes becomes rather dense and challenging in the representation of facts, but perhaps this is a feature of cyber territory.