Dynamic assessment can help language learners have more success
Altering or individualizing assessment procedures can propel second-language learners toward more successful mastery of that language, ongoing research by Penn State Associate Professor of Education Matt Poehner and his interdisciplinary team suggests.
Poehner's interdisciplinary work is centered on dynamic assessment, which seeks to identify the skills that students possess as well as their learning potential, to paint a broader picture of a person's capabilities. Instead of assigning a student a specific task and simply watching him or her complete it, dynamic assessment entails helpful intervention when problems surface.
"That's the psychology of it and the education of it is looking at the practice of how we do that," Poehner said. "I'm interested in languages and working with language teachers or language specialists to design procedures where we do that. It's interdisciplinary in that I'm drawing on these different fields and in some cases collaborations with people who might know more about this or that than I do."
Poehner, who describes his research as sitting at the crossroads of education, psychology and linguistics, focuses primarily on French as a foreign or world language and English as a second language. He's also dealt with teachers and students of languages ranging from Spanish to Chinese, Russian and Japanese.
Poehner prefers the dynamic assessment approach because early in his career he was designing interactive activities to help his students reach success in language, but he wasn't sure what to do to determine what type of progression had been achieved.
He began providing his students with standardized multiple-choice tests focused on grammar and vocabulary but felt what he called a "disconnect" between the activities intended to support language learning and the procedures used to assess that learning.
"And that's what eventually drew me to this work on dynamic assessment, because the idea of me giving you another chance, giving you suggestions, maybe feedback, maybe a model … that feels like I'm doing instructional type things but in the context of an assessment procedure and looking at how learners respond to it," Poehner said. "There was something that was just intuitively appealing to that for me."
One of Poehner's main collaborators is Jim Lantolf, Greer Professor in Language Acquisition and Applied Linguistics in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. Another is Adam van Compernolle, professor of French at Carnegie-Mellon University.
"(It's good to) bring in different pieces of the puzzle, maybe a stronger language background or different ways to think about collaborations with teachers and learners," Poehner said.
Poehner urges his students to take a moment to think about something—anything—and subsequently asks them if they used language during that process.
"Everyone always says, 'of course,'" he said. "But can you think without language, and that's the next question: What can you think about when you're not using language?
"That little internal voice that we have; it's really hard to think about things without using language. The interesting question becomes, 'when you start to study a second language, can you use that as a tool for thinking as well? Can you start to think with a second language especially as you become more proficient in that language?'" he asked.
Poehner illustrated that by saying if that language and culture are not just a different set of words for the meanings that you already have but maybe different meanings and different ways of looking at things—different cultures offering different perspectives on the world—that you're really offering people new ways of thinking and news ways of understanding the world. "And I think that's pretty powerful," he added.
"We know, for example, there is evidence artists can think in images and musicians report they can think in music when they are composing things," said Poehner. "If you ask them to think about other things, they are going to start using language. Language is such a powerful tool.
"You and I can use it to think about music or think about art, but we can also use it to think about our childhood, or make plans for the future, or think about abstract things … it's really almost limitless."
A rewarding component for Poehner came during a project he was involved in with a child who was a struggling reader and for whom dynamic assessment was used. Rather than struggling through reading comprehension tasks, as the child had previously done, he was allowed to interact with the assessor, who provided prompts and feedback throughout the test.
"At the end of the project, after seeing that he could really, thoughtfully work through a process of trying to read text that was difficult for him and answer questions and understand what the text was about, he saw that he had shifted himself from just kind of guessing to being able to work through that process," he said.
"The kid said 'it showed me that I had a mind.' Something like that, just the self-realization that it's possible when you maybe haven't had success and you experience success, you become aware of your own capabilities, your own thought processes … I think that's really powerful," Poehner said.
Poehner said taking a more interdisciplinary approach allows you to have those types of dialogues with people and to be reading more broadly so that you're getting exposure to a range of perspectives and a range of ways to be thinking about data and ways of posing questions.
"I sometimes tell students that I read as much outside the field of world language education as I do inside it because I think if I read only inside world languages education, I'm going to be siloed," he said. "Reading outside of it really kind of activates more creative thinking because I see somebody doing something in another area and I think 'wow, I never thought about that before.'
"It takes my thinking in a different direction. With the interdisciplinary side of engaging people from other research communities, the flip side of that is the similarities across disciplines and realizing that particular research methods are ones that can cut across different disciplines and conceptual issues and applications of theories that can cut across different areas," he added.
"Most of the work that I've done—probably the majority of it—is in collaboration with teachers. Working with teachers, developing procedures, developing materials and then doing a project where we're implementing that and studying what happens."
Poehner stressed that instruction is no longer a one-size-fits-all process, one in which the students either respond or they don't, and that assessment doesn't necessarily have to be administered the same way for everyone.
"I think a really good outcome for this might be the realization that people have different backgrounds, different sets of abilities, different strengths at different points in time," he said. "In the context of language, one person might be very good at pronunciation but have a very limited vocabulary. Another student might be the complete opposite of that.
"By altering or individualizing our assessment procedures the way some of us already do our teaching procedures, I think it can really help more and more learners to realize their success," he said.