Second Language Acquisition Research and Language Testing

A Video Lecture by Dr Geoff Jordan

This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher



The SLA - Testing Interface

You would think that the interests of Second Language Acquisition and Language Testing researchers would be inextricably intertwined. The relationship has certainly been theorized a number of times. But yet there remains very little contact between these two critical branches of applied linguistic research. Shohamy (2000) and others (see Bachman and Cohen, 1998) have suggested that language testing can offer the following to SLA research:

  1. Insights into construct definition
  2. Application of LT research findings to hypothesis formation
  3. Direction for the construction and quality assurance of data collection instruments

What language testing researchers should get from SLA researchers includes:

  1. Identification of key knowledge, skills or abilities acquired at particular points in the acquisition sequence
  2. Ideas for task types
  3. The role of individual differences in acquisition

Yet, there is little interaction between these two fields. For example, Douglas (2001) argues that SLA researchers are not particularly interested in examining the reliability or validity of their instruments; and language testing researchers consistently complain that they are unable to use information from SLA research to inform test development. For language testing researchers the holy grail of SLA research would be the identification of a relatively stable acquisitional sequence (beyond, but including, the morphosyntactic level if possible). With this information we could design a test to find any given learner's position along a learning continuum. This is a core assumption underlying Assessment for Learning theory (including Dynamic Assessment), and Criterion-Referenced Assessment. It is elegantly demonstrated in the following figure from Horne (1984), which illustrates the "measurement ideal" of targeting tests at specific developmental stages.

So has something gone wrong? Or is it simply that second language acquisition research is dealing with a phenomenon so complex that it is probably never going to provide language testers with the kind of information that they need to build tests that generate genuine criterion-referenced diagnostic information?

In this lecture Dr Geoff Jordan, an SLA expert, examines the state of the art in SLA and how this relates to Language Testing.

Contact Details

Email Dr Jordan with comments at: geoffjordan[at]

Activities and Discussion Questions

You could work on this alone, or prepare responses for a presentation or discussion in a seminar.

  1. Can you summarise the main principle underlying Connectionism? What's your opinion of it?
  2. What elements do you think make up "Communicative Competence"? Do you think the Cognitive Approaches outlined deal satisfactorily with them?
  3. Can you summarise the constructs of (a) Interlanguage; (b) Implicit and Explicit knowledge; (c) Procedural and Declarative knowledge? How do you see the differences between (b) and (c)?
  4. How satisfactory do you think sociolinguistic studies are?
  5. How satisfactory do you think the work described here on sequences of SLA is? What questions remain unanswered?
  6. What's your opinion of Mike Long's and Nick Ellis' view of "fragile features" of the language and their suggestions to deal with this problem?
  7. How useful do you think studies in SLA are for teachers and testers? If you were involved in SLA research, what part of it would you concentrate on?


Bachman, L. F. and Cohen, A. D. (1998). Interfaces Between Second Language Acquisition and Language Testing Research Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Douglas, D. (2001). Performance consistency in second language acquisition and language testing research: a conceptual gap. Second Language Research 17(4), 442 - 456.

Ellis, N. (2006). Language Acquisition as Rational Contingency Learning. Applied Linguistics 27(1), 1 - 24.

Fulcher, G. (1995). "Variable competence and Second Language Acquisition: A problem for research methodology. System 25, 1, 25 - 33.

Gregg, K. R. (1990). The variable competence model of second language acquisition, and why it isn't. Applied Linguistics 11(4), 364 - 383.

Horne, S. (1984). Criterion-referenced testing: pedagogical implications. British Educational Research Journal 10(2), 155 - 173.

Jordan, G. (2004). Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Long, M. (1997) Focus on Form in Task-based Language Teaching. McGraw-Hill.

Pienemann, M. (1989). Is Language Teachable? Psycholinguistic Experiments and Hypotheses. Applied Linguistics 10(1), 52 - 79.

Shohamy, E. (2000). The relationship between second language testing and second language acquisition revisited. System 28(4), 541 - 554.

Web Pages to Visit

  1. Second Language Acquisition
  2. SLA Research
  3. Studies in Second Language Acquisition
  4. Linguist List
  5. Center for Applied Linguistics

Lecture by Geoff Jordan
Text by Glenn Fulcher
May 2013 / Updated 2015