Understanding trajectories of academic literacy: How could this improve diagnostic assessment?

16 July 2020

Given the rising interest in the English language development of international students in Australian universities, this paper considers the value of a developmental approach to the assessment of academic literacy. It outlines one of the criteria, Criterion D “Grammatical Correctness”, of the University of Sydney’s MASUS (Measuring the Academic Skills of University Students) Procedure (Bonanno & Jones, 2007) and discusses the need to underscore the validity of its assessment with developmental evidence. It then sketches a framework which has been used to measure language development, Processability Theory (Pienemann, 1998, 2005), and explores the applicability of this theory to the assessment of university students’ written English. By mapping the relationship between Criterion D and the oral development of two adolescent Chinese speaking students learning English as an Additional Language, the study reinforces the validity of scores on the criterion and its sub-criteria, the use of A (Appropriate) or NA (Not Appropriate) as measurement categories, and the overall score for grammatical performance. However, the findings suggest that the criterion’s “washback” to teaching could be fine-tuned by making the MASUS Procedure more “learner-sensitive”. The paper then discusses the study’s implications and limitations, focusing on the value and shortcomings of a developmental approach to academic literacy, particularly one concerned with grammatical development. The paper concludes that, despite the different foci of the empirical evidence and the MASUS Procedure, the findings suggest that an understanding of learner development could bolster two key features of language tests, namely validity and washback.