Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Designing and Sustaining a Foreign Language Writing Proficiency Assessment Program at the Postsecondary Level

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Designing and Sustaining a Foreign Language Writing Proficiency Assessment Program at the Postsecondary Level

Article excerpt

Introduction

Writing in postsecondary foreign language contexts in North America has received far less attention in the curriculum than the development of oral proficiency. While at least one extensive volume on the importance of advanced writing in foreign language contexts exists (Byrnes, Maxim, & Norris, 2010), there remain a number of reasons that account for the lack of both research-based and instruction-based attention to the development of foreign language writing throughout the early years of language acquisition. First, the focus of foreign language instruction at the postsecondary level in the United States is most often on oral proficiency goals. Most foreign language programs intend to prepare learners to speak and listen and to read so that they are able to negotiate overseas foreign settings with confidence. Hence, oral proficiency is emphasized and writing in these contexts is often relegated to exercises that reveal learners' acquisition of grammatical forms or developing breadth of vocabulary, to the thank-you note to foreign hosts or the personal resume, or as a means of measuring syntactic complexity. In upper-level courses, programs may even allow compositions to be written in the native language of students, English in the American context, in order to facilitate deeper literary and cultural interpretations. Even dissertations produced in foreign language departments in many American universities are written in English. This phenomenon stands in stark contrast to the field of English as a second language, which attempts to prepare English language learners with the skills that they will need to pursue bachelor'sor post-bachelor's degrees in English-speaking countries-a project that necessarily entails copious amounts of academic writing. A number of research studies such as Leki (1995) and Leki and Carson (1997) exist on this topic and have been synthesized succinctly by Hedgcock (2005).

Another speculation for the lack of focus on foreign language writing is that writing is a planned language performance, in contrast to the spontaneous language performance of oral proficiency, and, hence, is viewed as less demanding. The language development research that has dominated studies in second language acquisition has been principally rooted in oral assessments, with literacy (writing or reading) rarely acknowledged as an important dimension of input (Bernhardt, 2011). With the exception of Byrnes and colleagues (2010), who contended that writing provides learners with the ability to perform in genres and hence is a "particularly valued indicator of overall FL development toward upper levels of ability" (p. 4), most research has ignored learners' abilities to integrate spoken and written texts; even fewer studies referred to foreign language writing in terms of relatively lengthy connected discourse. Reichelt (1999) thoroughly reviewed these and other dilemmas confronted by the context of foreign language writing.

The development of the foreign language profession itself from the 1980s onward has lacked perspective on writing development. In the early years of the proficiency movement, the focus was exclusively on oral proficiency and centered on a consistent measure of student performance, most especially in their oral performance. Admittedly, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines entailed reading, writing, listening, and speaking from their initial publication in 1982, with the primary emphasis on oral proficiency. This was evidenced by a full- scale certification process, attached only to oral proficiency interviewing and rating with concomitant recertification possibilities, that was developed throughout the 1980s. The potential for assessment in reading, listening, and writing, comparable to oral proficiency assessment, remained untapped for more than a decade. Writing proficiency has, of course, been included from the inception of the formal discussion around proficiency rooted in the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) guidelines. …

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