Within language testing, there has arisen over time at least two major viewpoints on assessment. Originally, the view was that assessing language should look specific elements of a language or you could say that language assessment should look at discrete aspects of the language.
A reaction to this discrete methods came about with the idea that language is wholistic so testing should be integrative or address many aspects of language simultaneously. In this post, we will take a closer look at discrete and integrative language testing methods through providing examples of each along with a comparison.
Discrete-point testing works on the assumption that language can be reduced to several discrete component “points” and that these “points” can be assessed. Examples of discrete-point test items in language testing include multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank, and spelling.
What all of these example items have in common is that they usually isolate an aspect of the language from the broader context. For example, a simple spelling test is highly focused on the orthographic characteristics of the language. True/false can be used to assess knowledge of various grammar rules etc.
The primary criticism of discrete-point testing was its discreteness. Many believe that language is wholistic and that in the real world students will never have to deal with language in such an isolated way. This led to the development of integrative language testing methods.
Integrative Language Testing Methods
Integrative language testing is based on the unitary trait hypothesis, which states that language is indivisible. This is in complete contrast to discrete-point methods which supports dividing language into specific components. Two common integrative language assessments include cloze test and dictation.
Cloze test involves taking an authentic reading passage and removing words from it. Which words remove depends on the test creator. Normally, it is every 6th or 7th word but it could be more or less or only the removal of key vocabulary. In addition, sometimes potential words are given to the student to select from or sometimes the list of words is not given to the student
The student’s job is to look at the context of the entire story to determine which words to write into the blank space. This is an integrative experience as the students have to consider grammar, vocabulary, context, etc. to complete the assessment.
Dictation is simply writing down what was heard. This also requires the use of several language skills simultaneously in a realistic context.
Integrative language testing also has faced criticism. For example, discrete-point testing has always shown that people score differently in different language skills and this fact has been replicated in many studies. As such, the exclusive use of integrative language approaches is not supported by most TESOL scholars.
As with many other concepts in education, the best choice between discrete-point and integrative testing is a combination of both. The exclusive use of either will not allow the students to demonstrate mastery of the language.