Reviewed by Stephen Giles
21 August 2019
Rethinking the Second Language Listening Test: From Theory to Practice. Field, J. (2019) Bristol: Equinox Publishing
Colleagues dipping a toe into the deep and choppy waters of test design are well advised to consult the considerable expertise of John Field on the subject of second language listening test design. From his earlier work Listening in the Language Classroom (2008) through a body of work focused on both global and local issues in test design to this new monograph, Field has demonstrated a degree of expertise which is happily summarised in this very accessible, practical and largely well-structured volume.
As the subtitle of the work indicates, this monograph initially guides the would-be test designer through a series of theoretical ‘checks’ which question some of the key assumptions inherent in existing testing formats. Field proposes a cognitive model for testing listening, which asks the designer to consider the mind of the test taker – while acknowledging the considerable challenges involved in achieving this – and to reflect on the challenges faced in an artificial listening event. There is detailed focus on the distinction between concepts of lexical density in a reading test versus a listening test, as the listener must combat many obstacles thrown up by supra-segmental features of pronunciation in the recording. It is clear that issues arising from connected speech could lead a relatively simple ‘text’ to pose significant challenges for the test taker, even at higher proficiency levels. Field’s interest in the role of pronunciation in a listening event is a particular strength of this work, echoing the practical approaches of Catford (1988) and Underhill (1994). Further challenges arising from the test taker’s cultural and contextual background are also explored at length. This creates a space for the test designer to move away from the process of simply mapping tasks to CEFR levels in order to demonstrate compliance with an artificial and simplistic set of criteria. Field goes on to propose alternative cognitively based descriptors for measuring L2 listening that provide a more robust measurement framework.
Moving from theoretical frameworks to practical issues of test design, the work also considers the challenges inherent in the selection and physical creation of a listening ‘text’. While Field maintains that authentic material is the default best option for a listening test, he also explores the many reasons why such material is difficult to obtain and to integrate into testing at a variety of levels. He offers practical suggestions on annotating a recording script to increase its cognitive validity. In this section of the book, Field expresses frustration at the tendency of item writers to introduce artificial constructs into a scripted recording in order to challenge the listener, which ultimately leads to the text becoming more challenging than a real-world listening event.
The desire to ensure authenticity and cognitive validity in listening tests also informs later sections on test conventions and listener roles. Field’s assessment of the impact on the learner of repeated play of recorded material is particularly insightful, given the popularity of lecture capture. In an academic context, the listening event as a ‘one-off’ is becoming outdated, yet many international tests of listening persist with a single play of recorded material. Also within the context of EAP, Field makes an extremely useful observation that a truly authentic test of effective participation in lectures would require a combination of audio/video recording of a speaker shown alongside summative PowerPoint slides. His call for further research regarding this mode of delivery is timely, particularly as it is seemingly well suited to a computer-based testing model.
The final section of the book offers a critique of tests that embed listening into other core skills, such as listening into speaking or listening into writing. Such techniques are popular in wider course book materials, but Field makes the valid point that in reality they prove harder to assess effectively, while also lacking any real sense of validity as ‘real-world’ tasks.
While this book goes beyond the scope of academic listening – it has much of value to say on listening for young learners and those in a professional or business context – the insights it can offer for the EAP practitioner are considerable. Though it is a slim volume, its methodical approach to stripping away some of the shibboleths of listening test design and then rebuilding the essential elements of the test according to the fundamental principles of cognitive validity make it a very worthwhile handbook. It has value both for designers and for any colleague wishing to gain an insight into the limits and limitations of current listening tests.
Catford, J. C. (1988) A Practical Introduction to Phonetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Underhill, A. (1994) Sound Foundations. Oxford: Heinemann
Reviewed by Stephen Giles, English Language Support Manager, Harper Adams University