Thursday Scholar: Authentic Assessment

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May 10, 2012 by k. liz

I told you recently that you would be reading some of my grad work in the next few weeks as I have just finished my semester and have written a lot of summarizing pieces. Tonight, I want to share with you a recent essay on traditional versus authentic assessment. If you are interested in any of the sources cited, just leave a comment below and I can include bibliographical information. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!


Grammar teaching has existed in some form or another for centuries. In studying the traditional approaches to grammar teaching, we have found that the focus has for a long time been on the teacher providing explicit focus on grammar forms in the classroom. Though students have been successful in language learning programs following traditional approaches to grammar teaching, researchers have come to the conclusion that this is not the most effective way to teach grammar.

Comparison of Psycholinguistic and Traditional Approaches to Grammar Teaching

A more recent alternative to traditional grammar teaching is, as Lee and VanPatten (2003) describe, a psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching. In comparison, both a psycholinguistic and a traditional approach to grammar have as their end goal that the students will be able to utilize grammar forms accurately in their language output. They both realize that this is not an inherent skill in the learners and that learners need to be guided in their acquisition of language forms. However, there are more differences than similarities in the two approaches.

For instance, a psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching allows for more recent research in students’ learning styles. Ausebel’s Subsumption Theory (explained in Brown, 2007) teaches that learners connect information and build a structure within their mind for ordering such information and creating sense out of new knowledge. Furthermore, Lee and VanPatten share in their book on Communicative Language Teaching (2003) that learners implicitly build a grammar system and have found that even without explicit teaching, learners acquire the same amount of grammar. In their conclusion, they stated that the fundamental difference for learners acquiring grammar is not the presence or absence of explicit teaching, but rather structured input. Both of these theories counteract the thought that teachers must explicitly teach each grammar form. Both Ausebel’s Subsumption Theory and Lee and VanPatten’s research on how students build a grammar system lead to the psycholinguistic approach to grammar which seeks to provide students with the opportunity to observe and make conclusions on grammar forms rather than be explicitly taught.

Teacher Roles

These theories behind a psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching lead to several practical differences in the classroom. Richards and Rodgers published a book (1994 & 2003) that summarized many language teaching theories, methods, and approaches over the last century. In some of these approaches (i.e. Grammar Translation Method & Audiolingualism), it is clear that the teacher is the keeper of all knowledge and is responsible for imparting that knowledge to the students. This supports Lee and VanPatten’s (2003) description of teachers suffering from the “Atlas Complex” in which teachers carry the weight and responsibility for everything that happens in the classroom, and the student’s sole responsibility is to come and be a receptor of the imparted knowledge.

In contrast, Communicative Language Teaching, and other approaches that follow a psycholinguistic approach to language teaching place more responsibility on the students. The students are the ones who are building their internal understanding of grammar, so it is the teacher’s role to provide the necessary input for the student to make accurate and helpful conclusions. It is this input that greatly differs between traditional and psycholinguistic approaches, and one cannot effectively implement a CLT model without teaching grammar in this way. By utilizing a traditional approach to grammar, one instantly undermines the premise of CLT by removing the communication and meaning-filled aspect of the approach.

Focus on Form vs. Focus on Forms

In more traditional approaches there is a focus on forms. This focus on forms requires the teacher and students to look at grammar pieces in an isolated context and examine the meaning of each piece of grammar. However, in a psycholinguistic approach to grammar, there is a focus on form. The difference between these foci (FoF – psycholinguistic, and FoFS – traditional) is that FoF seeks to put meaning before form and only addresses grammar forms as they are raised in a meaningful context. Once grammar forms have been placed in a meaningful context (key: meaning before form) the students are then encouraged to examine and evaluate the forms that they have encountered. In a psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching, teachers strive to help the students co-construct an internal grammar. They do not provide all of the answers to the students, but rather help them in their effort to make sense of what they see through guiding questions and helpful observations. This is part of processing input that Lee and VanPatten propose in chapter 7 of their book (2003). This processing input seeks to provide meaning, make students aware of possible inaccurate processes they may try to utilize, and then help the students as they construct their own theory of grammar. The teacher is surely encouraged to help the students and point out important aspects of grammar forms, but this is extremely different than the traditional approaches in which that was all the teacher did. The psycholinguistic approach attempts to allow students to take control of their own learning.

Role of Input and Output

As a model, a psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching seeks to 1) provide meaningful input so that students can 2) have effective intake (what students actually glean from the provided input. This may or may not be equal to the input, as students may not understand everything that was said. What the students are able to comprehend and internalize is considered intake.) After students have taken in the language, they are then encouraged to 3) process that language and make conclusions. Following practice with the input in which the students are ideally making connections and building a repertoire of understanding they then move to 4) structured output in which the teacher is available and modeling to help them produce the grammar form in question. Finally, after the teacher has assisted the student in making informed decisions and practice the language in a meaningful context, the student should have acquired the form and be able to use it in their language output outside of the classroom. Granted, this model is ideal, and it may not always occur within one lesson plan, but the goal is that the teacher is working alongside the students to help them wrestle through the forms rather than providing them with rules and explicit teaching on the form.

In contrast, traditional grammar approaches generally provide mechanical input and output which does not carry meaning for the students. In this way, the students do not ever internalize the forms because they have no authentic reason to use the language. Input in traditional approaches often comprises of rote memorization and repetition. Output is structured in a similar way. The students are encouraged to repeat sentences that do not relate to their life, nor that they are required to understand! In a psycholinguistic approach, students must actively understand the content being utilized in both input and output activities.


A good example of how a psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching looks is a research project carried out by Paesani (2000s). She was part of a Spanish class in which processing instruction was utilized in an attempt to teach grammar from a psycholinguistic approach. Rather than explaining the pieces of grammar that were being used, the students were presented with the grammar and then encouraged to make conclusions based on the similarities or patterns that they saw. They were also encouraged to forgo the usual “rules of thumb” that students are often taught in traditional grammar classes, and construct meaningful reasons to choose between one grammar form or another. Student feedback on this class was positive as they found that this approach to grammar instruction allowed them to understand and make more informed decisions on grammar use in their own output.

As an example for a future class of my own, I envision implementing this psycholinguistic approach by first providing the students with a meaningful context. For the example of teaching past tense, I would show a video of a student going through their daily routines. This is a meaningful context because most students will relate with the content. As they view the video, I would instruct students to write down all of the things that the student is doing. This will provide us with a list of verbs to later utilize in our instruction. Once we have a list of verbs of what the student had done during the day, I can transcribe the sentences on an overhead or on the board in the past tense. As I take the students present tense forms and put them into the past tense, I will allow them to think through and come to conclusions on what is going on in with the structures and how and why they are changing. I would also make students aware that they cannot just assume that all verbs change the same way, but that they are going to have to observe and make conclusions about why some verbs are different than others. Following this, I would include input activities where the students are encountering the past tense in written and spoken form. For example, the students might be given a short quiz about the video they watched in which different past actions are listed and they must put them in order or decide whether or not the student in the video actually completed them. They would then take the same verbs listed in that quiz and ask students around the room whether or not they completed those actions yesterday or last week. This will give the students the opportunity to encounter the language in two different formats, without having to yet produce the forms themselves. Once they are confident and have completed these assignments, I would move on to a structured output activity in which the students would write a short schedule of the things that they did over the weekend. They will share this with a friend and compare activities. It will be important to remind students that this is a purposeful activity because this is often a topic of conversation on Monday mornings! Finally, students will be given extension activities to help them practice the structure more on their own. One activity that I can think of is to write a narrative to share with the class about the most important, the funniest, the scariest, or the saddest day of the student’s life. The students will be encouraged to put pictures with this narrative and display them around the room so that others may read about the others stories. This is a meaningful activity because it allows the students to make a choice and also to share some of their own background with others in the class.


In conclusion, there are a few similarities between traditional and psycholinguistic approaches to grammar teaching, but there are far more differences. It is my opinion that the differences in the focus on form, the use of input and output, and the role of the teacher can make the difference for a student’s success in language learning. By utilizing the psycholinguistic approach to grammar teaching, we not only enable students to use language effectively, but we also empower them by showing them that their abilities are not contingent on the explicative ability of the teacher. Traditional approaches are focused on the teacher, but psycholinguistic approaches put that focus back on the students where it really ought to be.


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