Communicative Language Testing

A new theory of language and language use that exerted significant influence on language teaching and therefore language testing from the early 1970s was the theory of communicative competence

Communicative competence is a linguistic term which refers to a learner’s second language ability. It refers to a learner’s ability to:

  • apply and use grammatical rules
  • form correct utterances
  • use these utterances appropriately

The term was coined by Dell Hymes (in 1966) who was inspired by Noam Chomsky‘s distinction on linguistic competence and performance.

According to Chomsky (1965) a speaker’s language ability comprised two components:

  • linguistic competence
  • linguistic performance

Hymes proposed that knowing a language entailed knowing more than its grammar and rules

According to Hymes there culturally specific rules that created a relationship between:

  • the language used
  • features of the communicative context

e.g.

What is appropriate language for communication with a sibling may not be appropriate for communication with an employer or lecturer.

Before the theory of communicative competence, language was often described from a psychological perspective, but this theory marked a profound shift in how language was perceived as it presented language as an internal phenomenon.

With the appearance of the communicative competence theory the focus shifted to a more sociological one, where the focus was on external, social functions of language.

The relevance of Hymes’ theory to language testing was almost immediately recognized when it appeared.

However, it was a decade later that its actual impact was felt on practice with the development of communicative language testing

Communicative language tests (CLT) are distinguished by two main features:

  • CLTs are performance tests and therefore require assessment to be carried out when the learner or candidate in engaged in an extended (receptive/productive) act of communication
  • CLTs pay attention to the social roles candidates would assume and hence considers the roles that candidates would assume in the real world on passing the test and offers a means of specifying the demands of such roles in detail

 

Models of communicative ability

Thought it was a challenge to shift perspectives not to mention focuses of language tests, there was a continuous theoretical engagement with the idea of communicative competence and its implications for the performance requirements of communicative language testing since the advent of the theory of communicative competence.

A number of writers have tried to specify the components of communicative competence in second languages and their role in performance.

The purpose of this is to provide a comprehensive framework for:

  • test development
  • testing research
  • interpretation of test performance

The first such models specified the components of knowledge of language without dealing in detail with their role in performance.

In 1980, Michael Canale and Merrill Swain published a paper that specified four components of communicative competence:

  • Grammatical competence - knowledge of systematic features of grammar, lexis and phonology
  • Sociolinguistic competence - knowledge of rules of language use in terms of what is appropriate in different contexts
  • Strategic competence - ability to compensate for incomplete or imperfect linguistic resources in a second language by using (other) successful communication strategies
  • Discourse competence - ability to deal with extended use of language in context (cohesion and coherence)
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