Applying an index of linguistic development in EFL classrooms

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Christopher Jenks

It is no surprise to the English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher that English language learners (ELLs) possess a variety of academic and linguistic abilities. The various degrees of proficiency ELLs achieve demonstrate such diversity in EFL classrooms. Although most educators acknowledge the difficulties in learning a second language (SL), there is a lack of agreement as to ways to help overcome these linguistic and academic challenges. For example, many of the teaching methodologies in the 1960's resulted from opposing language theories (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). Some researchers believed learning a language was achieved by external stimuli (Skinner, 1957), and others thought the process of learning a language was mainly a cognitive, internal function (Chomsky, 1959). Ironically, the development of the organization, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) during the same period of scholarly debate, encouraged EFL teachers to transfer these theories into a teaching device (Paulston & Bruder, 1976).

Although much has been accomplished since the 60s and 70s in regards to preparing, delivering, and assessing academic performance in language classrooms, there is still little discussion concerning the potential benefits of indexing linguistic development. The objective of this article is to examine the possibilities of using an index of linguistic development (ILD) as an alternative measurement tool for language achievement. The subsequent section will use a theory of natural orders (the idea that ELLs acquire grammars in a specific order) as an example of how an ILD may offer EFL teachers with an effective way of assessing the development of language proficiency throughout the year.

Placement, Assessment, and Ability

Are there any procedures involved in placing ELLs in a particular language classroom? Although many EFL institutions assess linguistic capabilities and group ELLs accordingly, what role, if any, does this initial placement play in the classroom assessments that occur throughout the year? If ELLs follow an order of linguistic rules and cannot skip stages (Pienemann, 1984), assessments that do not take into account previous achievement markers may hinder the ability to measure linguistic development. For example, a student who can only produce subject-verb-object questions (stage 2. e.g. You are the teacher?), as defined by Pienemann and Johnston's (1987) developmental stages of question forms, may not benefit from a lesson focusing on the type of questions that occur during stage 4 (Wh-questions with syntactic inversions. e.g. At the shop, what did you buy?).

An ILD provides a way to link the placement of ELLs during the beginning of the year with any subsequent assessments (in this case, an index of question forms). In addition, lesson plans can be developed according to the current proficiency level of students. It is important to note that other natural orders have been introduced (e.g., the acquisition of morphemes; see Dulay & Burt, 1974), and using such an index requires EFL teachers to accept the notion that ELLs acquire some grammars through innate abilities. EFL teachers uncomfortable with developing classroom activities around abstract models of grammatical stages can, and should, develop their own ILD.

The fundamental idea to remember is this measuring stick will provide a tool for evaluating linguistic development from the beginning of the year to the end. Far too often assessments that occur throughout the year do not take a specific line of grammatical reasoning. Although all ELLs may not follow an index in an orderly fashion, the measuring stick provides EFL teachers with an idea of the grammatical structures that have been acquired, and the most suitable lesson activities and assessments.

It should be noted that criterion-based assessments follow a similar evaluative goal (i.e., to assess learners based on the performance of predefined skills or knowledge); however, ILDs differ because language development is measured against previous individual attainment (criterion-based assessment would establish a skill or knowledge which the entire class must acquire). The next section will explain what an ILD may look like, and how EFL teachers can use them.

Index of Linguistic Development

As was discussed in the previous section, the importance of aligning assessment with students' linguistic ability is that it will ensure lessons and evaluations are not beyond the proficiency level of ELLs. However, also introduced earlier in the article is the notion that ELLs possess a wealth of linguistic and academic diversity. How can one, or several, indices of linguistic development provide the input necessary for a heterogeneous group of language learners? Because there has been little research and large-scale application of an ILD, there is no definitive answer to this question. What is certain, however, is the ability of an ILD to provide EFL teachers with a way to assess ELLs' linguistic development throughout the year.

In order to avoid the ambiguities involved in justifying classroom applications of natural orders, Hunt's (1966) proposal of the t-unit will be used to explicate how EFL teachers can develop an index. A t-unit is the main clause of a sentence plus any other subordinate clauses that are attached to it. So, for example, the sentence Bill likes to run contains one t-unit, and the sentence Bill likes to run with his friends contains two t-units. Therefore, a simple solution to using t-units as an index is to evaluate writing passages throughout the year and develop course materials according to syntactic production.

The previous t-unit example can also be used to demonstrate a practical way of moving ELLs from one syntactic unit to another. Beginning-level ELLs frequently produce one t-unit sentences (e.g., Bill likes to run, or Bill has friends). Furthermore, these one t-unit sentences represent individual thoughts, feelings, or commands. EFL teachers can advance students from one t-unit to two t-unit sentences by listing these individual thoughts in a graphic organizer (e.g., sentence clusters or Venn diagrams). Two t-unit sentences (Bill likes to run with his friends) can then be taught by combining individual thoughts with the prepositions or conjunctions necessary for complex sentences (e.g., on, at, or and).

An ILD that implements t-units as a performance marker enables EFL teachers to precisely account for the syntactic development of their students (Hunt, 1966). Implementing t-units throughout the year will also assist in correctly placing ELLs in classroom levels, enable EFL teachers to develop lesson activities appropriate to students' language abilities (in this case, syntactic development), and provide a road map of linguistic development, as opposed to relying on numerical scores of traditional tests to determine language success.


The preceding sections used a model of grammatical stages (natural order of question forms) and an assessment tool (t-units) to show how research applications can be used to develop an ILD. Although natural orders and t-units may present EFL teachers with different means of delivering lesson activities (i.e., natural orders have predetermined outcomes and t-units do not), both underscore the importance of linking current assessment with previous performance markers. In so doing, EFL teachers will be able to better assess the effectiveness of teaching methods, and classroom evaluations will more accurately reveal linguistic progression.

To achieve these goals, educational institutions must go beyond the application of natural orders (Goldschneider & DeKeyser, 2001) and frequency data (Ellis, 2002). More importantly, EFL teachers must not overlook the initial evaluative phase at the beginning of the year. Such assessment markers will prove invaluable data for assessments that occur throughout the year. Of course, classroom realities, such as time, energy, and classroom size, play an important role in choosing an ILD.

An effective solution to large classrooms, for example, would be to request students to keep an on-going classroom dialogue journal; EFL teachers can then easily assess t-unit development throughout the year. Alternatively, teachers with more resources can focus on all of the linguistic aspects of oral production by audio or video recording multimedia journals, dyadic tasks, mock interviews, role plays, or presentations.

A common goal for all EFL teachers is to improve the language proficiency of their students. However, do our classroom activities actually build upon previous language ability, and how do we define these proficiency levels? Although proficiency levels can mean different things to different people, developing an ILD will allow EFL teachers to properly place ELLs in appropriate classroom levels, develop and deliver lessons that are suitable to the changing abilities of individual students, and assess language proficiency according to previous linguistic attainment.

It is hoped that this short article has provided an introduction for EFL teachers to explore and experiment with using an ILD for various classroom activities. Although it may prove difficult, if not impossible, to predict the linguistic development of ELLs, an ILD will offer the classroom teacher a pedagogical tool to link classroom activities with one another. This bridge between previous attainment and projected outcomes will present the EFL teacher with an opportunity to deliver classroom activities that are as dynamic and variable as the students that undertake them.


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Christopher Jenks has taught EFL in Seoul, South Korea and ESL in Northern Virginia, USA. He possesses a M.Ed. in TESOL from George Mason University and is currently a Ph.D. student of Educational Linguistics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.