A critical review of Wigglesworth’s article on the influences on performance in task-based oral assessment.

C. Alexander Bristol University

1. Conceptual framework and assumptions/researcher’s aims

 

This research aims to examine how different task-types influence student L2 output in informal classroom-based assessments. The aspects of tasks analysed comprised: cognitive difficulty of task; whether the interlocutor was a native or non-native speaker; if planning time was made available; task familiarity and structure (i.e. amount of assisting information), NB these last two task variables were mentioned later on in the article. Wigglesworth discussing cognitive load/difficulty/demand (these words appear to be used synonymously) maintains (2001, 186) that there are data to suggest that cognitive load does influence performance, although not always negatively. With regard to the differences between non-native and native speaker interlocutors it is stated (2001, 187) that the interlocutor variable has a significant effect on L2 output, more so than task familiarity.

2. Design of study/analytic tools/research questions

Structure, cognitive load and familiarity of content are seen as features internal to the task; availability of planning time and whether an interlocutor is a NS/NNS are treated as external conditions. All the tasks were competency based assessment tasks which are routinely used for evaluating achievement in the Australian Adult Migrant Education Program. Five tasks at two levels were identified. Task types were relevant to the competences required at each level and tasks were developed from a collection of tasks sent in by teachers from three Australian states. Level one tasks assessed learners at the functional level of proficiency and level two tasks graded learners at a vocational level of proficiency. One specially developed task was used as a control task (NB it was thought to be universally familiar to learners and skill-specific) the other tasks were manipulated using the following variables: structure, familiarity of activity, NS vs NNS and planning time.

80 learners from different ESL centres at each level took part in the project. All 80 learners did a non-manipulated task (1) and then approximately 20 were randomly assigned to one of the remaining four tasks. The tasks were administered by trained and experienced teachers. Each learner was tape-recorded taking four level two and six level one tasks; the number of cassettes used would be dependent on the number of centres and the length of the cassettes rather than multiplying the number of students (80) by 10. Student feedback on task difficulty was elicited using a five-point Likert scale. It was stated that the interviewers were ‘familiar’ with the rating scales and the scales themselves were used in the assessment of English language proficiency of adult immigrants. Performances were randomly double-rated by assigning performances across 16 raters.

Three separate quantitative evaluations were made in order to note oral difficulty-level variations i.e. (1) an analyses of variance and t-tests on rater raw scores measured subject performance; (2) a Rasch analysis using the statistical modelling program FACETS (four facets were included: the candidate, task, rater and rating criteria measured task difficulty; (3) learner feedback enabled measurement of subjects’ evaluation of task difficulty.

 

3. Major findings/interpretation of findings

Wigglesworth suggests (2001, 204) three possible reasons why/how NS interlocutors made the task more difficult: (1) learners may be more relaxed with NNS who in fact were also learners (i.e. different social status); (2) raters may compensate for a perceived disadvantage in having a NNS interlocutor; (3) learners may produce less complex language with NNS interlocutors. It was held that planning time encouraged learners to try to introduce more complex ideas/structures and that when this was translated into linguistic output a learner’s performance was adversely affected. In information elicitation tasks, structure appeared to be quite important. Whereas in more negotiated interaction where questions may be asked and answered, structure was not found to be as influential, though the role of the interlocutor was thought to be crucial here i.e. the interlocutor could provide structure and also dominate/assist.

 

4. The study.

5. Conclusion

 

The number of research variables and subsequent analyses of the findings is impressive; though in my opinion the research is over ambitious. Reducing the number of variables to one, or two at the very most, would have made this research a lot easier carry out (as in Wigglesworth 1997). The way variables were grouped seemed arbitrary e.g. planning and familiarity but no planning and NS/NNS combination. Wigglesworth did not explain the logic behind the way task variables were analysed NB there are significantly more than five permutations using these task variables.

I do not think the findings of this study should be generalised to other situations and so they would not be relevant to my professional situation. I do however agree with Wigglesworth (p 206) that in oral assessments, close attention needs to be paid not only to possible task variables but also to the role of interlocutor.

 

 

Bibliography

Brown, A. (1995) The effect of rater variables in the development of an occupation-specific language performance test. Language Testing 12/1: 1-15

Ellis, R. (1995) The study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: OUP

Lazaraton, Anne. (1996) Interlocutor support in oral proficiency interviews: the case of CASE. Language Testing 13/2: 151-172

Wigglesworth, G. (2001) Influences on performance in task-based oral assessments, in Bygate, M et al. (eds) .......? (not given full source)

Wigglesworth, G. 2001: Influences on performance in task-based oral assessments.In Bygate, M., Skehan, P. & M. Swain: Task based learning. Addison Wesley Longman

Wigglesworth, G. (1997) An investigation of planning time and proficiency level on oral test discourse. Language Testing, 14: 85-106