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Full Play To The Positive Backwash Effect

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2131 words Published: 12th May 2017

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Abstract: “Backwash” has usually been described in terms of the effect of testing on language teaching and learning. “Backwash can be harmful or beneficial”, as Arthur Hughes states. (Hughes: 1989) This paper set out to see how far this term can be applied to the ways in which both the students and teachers can benefit from language testing.

Key words: positive backwash beneficial testing motivation validity and reliability

I. The Backwash Effect and the Learners

In language learning, two terms are often mentioned, “instrumental motivation and integrative motivation”. Instrumental motivation refers to the utility value of the language itself—the usefulness of English as a tool in learning, commerce or international communication. Testing process instrumental motivation—candidates usually take test to further their educational or career prospects. If the testing brings the positive backwash effect into full play, it will motivate the candidates to learn better after they know what they have achieved and what they need to catch up with. But if the result of the testing is simply given as ‘pass’, ‘fail’, or a mark, the candidates will surely be demotivated—they do not know what they have to remedy. Another serious situation is that the tests are set by outside bodies which establish their own syllabuses, standards and criteria—the language learners are trained some skills which are necessary for their future learning but the tests do not provide the corresponding item to measure the learners’ ability. That is —the extent to which the learning required for the testing is apparently relevant to classroom learning or the need of the learner has been limited. As Hughes pointed out, “If a test is regarded as important then preparation for it can come to dominate all teaching and learning activities”—learners are misled to strain every nerve to get by it. Which thus hinder the normal sequence in both learning and teaching?

II. The Backwash Effect and the Teachers

All teachers are motivated by the testing and angle their teaching to what is being tested. Because they believe: “Motivation of the students is one of the most important factors influencing their success or failure in learning the language”. (McDonough, 1986) They also consider that the influence that the testing has on teaching is either positive or negative. The negative backwash effect is likely to be greatest where teachers are inexperienced or lack of confidence. If the teachers do not know how they can teach under the binding force of the testing and do not know well to develop the materials arranged according to the subject, the teachers will be de-motivated and puzzle over the direction which they should head for. But if the teachers know how to make the testing an impetus to promote their future teaching, by identification with the other teachers outside the college they know what success they have made .It will even drive them to put double effort into the future job. Therefore, it is important that testing should reflect the skills and approaches of the progressive language teachers and make better use of the testing to encourage teachers in their training. The greater positive backwash effect, the more teachers are likely to be motivated by the testing.

III. The Development in the Testing

In the past few years, with the development of the training projects, the research in this field is on its way to the progress. Instrumental motivation in language testing has been retained (learning is still connected to promoting, enrolling and earning) but testing is acquired an “integrative” dimension. So many changes taking place in the testing have been contributed to this dimension:

1. A change in the underlying theory of language learning.

2. A change in the approaches to language teaching.

3. A change in the purposes or testing.

4. A change in the criterion for evaluating a language testing.

5. A change in the testing concerning all the aspects of language teaching.

When we set language tests, do we really test the candidates’ language ability? Are we really trying to test what can enable candidates to use a language effectively? Language teachers we have been told, when act as a tester, must concern with a whole host of different validity and reliability factors. Certainly, in language testing just as much as elsewhere, validity and reliability are important. But a valid and reliable test is of little use if it does not prove to be a practical one as Weir stated, “This involves questions of economy, ease of administration, scoring and interpretation of results. The longer it takes to construct, administer and score, and the more skilled personnel and equipment that are involved, the higher the costs are likely to be.”(1990) So how to achieve satisfactory reliability tests, how to enhance validity of the testing and how to make the tests more practical have become language teachers’ major concern.

IV. Practical Concerns in Evaluating Tests

“Tests are means of gathering information. They are constructed according to certain criteria which are intended to safeguard the quality of this information.” as Nunan once said, and it is easy to reach the agreement that the teachers should test what they require the learners to do. Nunan. D also said, “It is important that, in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of a given curriculum, all elements be inter-grated, so that decisions made at one level are not in conflict with those made at another. For instance, in courses based on principles of communicative language teaching, it is important that these principles are reflected, not only in curriculum documents and syllabus plans, but also in classroom activities, patterns of classroom interaction and in tests of communicative performance.” (Nunan, 1987)

In China a criterion-referenced test which is named TEM 8 (Test for English Majors Grade Eight) is discussed here for us to assess and discuss in detail whether this test can achieve beneficial backwash and how we can improve the backwash effect of the test. According to Hughes, there are eight steps to make our ideal into realities:

1. Test the abilities whose development you want to encourage.

2. Sample widely and unpredictably.

3. Use direct testing.

4. Make testing criterion referenced.

5. Base achievement tests on objectives.

6. Ensure test is known and understood by students and teachers.

7. Where necessary, provide assistance to teachers.

8. Count the cost.

Let’s look at the diagram below which collates the difference between the syllabus designed for Language teaching and that designed for tests (TEM8)

Syllabus designed for language teaching

Syllabus designed for test TEM 8



To understand VOA and BBC program from on -the -spot reporting concerning about the politics, economy, culture and education technology, etc.


1. To understand all kinds of English conversation and speech, or interview, or special topic debate on the communicative occasion.


According to the editors Messina and Feng Qinghua, the practice test chosen here is entirely based on the teaching syllabus of English major and TEM8 syllabus in higher education. From the diagram, we can draw a conclusion that the TEM8 test is basically based on the principle that language should be test in the same way as it is taught.

The listening task is divided into two parts. The former part contains: (1) talk; (2) conversation; (3) news broadcast. There are fifteen multiple-choice questions as a whole. The latter part contained: (1) note-taking; (2) gap-filling.

In writer’s opinion the structure of the test accords with Weir’s theory. The advantages of employing multiple-choice format largely are that scoring can be perfectly reliable and scoring can be rapid and economical.

The advantage of not employing multiple-choice format largely is that it prevents the learners from getting the harmful backwash. Hughes also has a comment on it: “It should hardly be necessary to point out that where a test which is important to students is multiple choices in nature, there is a danger that practice for the test will have a harmful effect on learning and teaching. Practice at multiple choice items (especially when, as happens, as much attention is paid to improving one’s educated guessing as to the content of the items) will not usually be the best way for students to improve their command of a language.” (Hughes, 1989)

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For the note-taking, as we have no listening recording of the test in hand, however, having carefully examined the tape-script and the key answers to it, we notice that although the test focuses on whether the students have received the massage that was intended to, the material is not spoken test. In real life situation, the listeners mostly have contextual clues to facilitate understanding, it is extremely difficult for students to backtrack and focus on very specific feature of discourse while listening to and attempting to understand a non-interactive, uninterrupted monologue. (Weir, 1990) Therefore, preserving the spoken text should be in the tester’s consideration.

In “TAKE NOTE” written by Michael Berman, he points out that the note-taking materials should be suitable for the study of styles and registers in contemporary English; during the process of listening, it is very important to be possibly assisted by questions from the speaker and the candidates should be encouraged to write in their own words, to centralize on elements of major importance and use key words abbreviations or symbols; they should be reminded that there is rarely time or need for direct quotation.” (Berman, 1980) Look at the criterion of the scoring and the key to the note taking of this test; it does not have this attempt. Should it be improved later on? It is still a question as far as the beneficial backwash concerns.

Having consulted the sources of the reading materials of the test, they are seen that native speakers wrote them all. It is in accordance with Hughes’ theory that the direct testing implies the testing of performance skills, with texts and tasks as authentic as possible. (Hughes, 1989) So one thing also deserves our attention, that is, both syllabuses in above diagrams are widely arranged for the requirement of the learners. The likely outcome is that much preparation for the test will be limited to it. The positive backwash effect will be hence in full play.

V. Conclusion

As Hughes says that the best way to test people’s writing ability is to get them to write. Hughes makes further his theory by saying that (1) We have to set writing tasks that are properly representative of the population of tasks that we should expect the students to be able to perform. (2) The tasks should elicit samples of writing which truly represent the students’ ability. (3) It is essential that the samples of writing can and will be scored reliably. TEM8 test is basically based on this theory. Only when we fully realized that the students and those responsible for teaching know and understand what the test demands of them, and the sample items made available to everyone concerned with preparation for it, the test can increase its reliability. (Hughes, 1989)

Different attitudes and approaches to syllabus design and testing can be put on a continuum. (Hu, 1988) Tests exist to enable learners to make retrospective statements about the effectiveness of learning. If we are really trying to test what it is that enables a person to sue a language effectively, as a language teacher we have to take into account a multiplicity of factors that involved in the testing. Thus the teaching was tied very closely, right from the start, to learners’ real needs. A test designed to meet these needs. A test designed to test effectively both language knowledge and language skills. The most important of all is that it has been possible for the authorities to practice TEM for about three years, then the test can be further developed into a more satisfying one based on the linguistic fundamental criteria and the test can create more positives for the learners. It is up to us —language teachers’ future effort.


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