Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Washback in Language Assessment

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Washback in Language Assessment

Article excerpt


This paper reviews the progress made in washback studies over the quarter century since Hughes' (1989) placed it at the centre of his textbook Testing for Language Teachers. Research into washback and the development of models of washback are described and an agenda is suggested for test developers wishing to build washback into their prograimnes. It is recoimnended that future projects should pay greater attention to test design features and to the outcomes of learning as well as continuing to explore learner motivation and cultural factors that might encourage participants to react to tests in certain ways, but not in others. Washback research itself is seen to be a potentially valuable tool in persuading participants to adopt new practices.

KEYWORDS: language testing, test impact, washback, consequences


Este artículo revisa el progreso realizado en los estudios relativos al impacto de la evaluación sobre los procesos de aprendizaje y enseñanza de lenguas (washback) durante el último cuarto de siglo desde que Hughes colocó este tema como capítulo central de su libro Testing for Language Teachers (1989). Concretamente, se describen tanto los estudios sobre washback como sus modelos y se sugiere, para los evaluadores que así lo deseen, una agenda para la introducción de washback en sus programas. Se recomienda que en el futuro se preste más atención al diseño de las pruebas de evaluación de lenguas así como a los resultados de aprendizaje y que se siga explorando la motivación del alumno y factores de índole cultural que pueden dar lugar a que los participantes reaccionen a los exámenes de determinadas maneras, y no de otras. La investigación sobre washback en sí misma puede considerarse como una herramienta potencialmente valiosa para convencer a los participantes de adoptar nuevas prácticas en este sentido.

PALABRAS CLAVE: evaluación de lenguas, impacto de la evaluación, consecuencias


Washback refers to the impact that a test has on the teaching and learning done in preparation for it. This paper reviews research conducted into washback over the quarter century since the publication of Hughes' standard text Testing for Language Teachers (1989). Hughes presented washback (or backwash as he called it) as a key concern for teachers. This prompted researchers to begin to investigate whether and how washback came about in different contexts. This paper first offers an extended definition, and then outlines the research that has been carried out into washback. Consideration is given to how findings have informed the development of theoretical frameworks explaining how washback occurs and features that may influence its course. Finally, these frameworks are used to outline an agenda for language test developers who wish to apply the lessons from washback research to their own practices.

Two related trends in language assessment over recent decades have encouraged growth in interest in washback. The first, reflected in Hughes' (1989), has been a movement in test design towards performance testing involving attempts to create assessment tasks that more closely resemble real-world applications of language related knowledge, skills and abilities. The other has been a shift in views of test validity to embrace the use of tests as instruments of social policy.


A distinction has often been made between the extent (Bachman & Palmer, 1996) or intensity (Cheng, 2005) of washback and its direction (beneficial or damaging) (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Hughes, 1989). The importance afforded to a test has traditionally been regarded as the motivating force that drives washback, leading to more or less intense effects. The design of the test and the tasks it includes are seen as a rudder that can guide washback in a beneficial or damaging direction (Bailey, 1996, Hughes, 1989).

Washback intensity (Cheng, 2005) refers to the degree to which participants will adjust their behaviour to meet the demands of a test. …

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