What is Language Testing?
This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher


What's on this Page?



"A definition is enclosing a wilderness
of idea within a wall of words."

Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

Definition 1
"Language Testing is the practice and study of evaluating the proficiency of an individual in using a particular language effectively."
Priscilla Allen, University of Washington.
(Winning entry from the 2009/10 "definition" competition run on this website)

Definition 2
"The activity of developing and using language tests. As a psychometric activity, language testing traditionally was more concerned with the production, development and analysis of tests. Recent critical and ethical approaches to language testing have placed more emphasis on the uses of language tests. The purpose of a language test is to determine a personís knowledge and/or ability in the language and to discriminate that personís ability from that of others. Such ability may be of different kinds, achievement, proficiency or aptitude. Tests, unlike scales, consist of specified tasks through which language abilities are elicited. The term language assessment is used in free variation with language testing although it is also used somewhat more widely to include for example classroom testing for learning and institutional examinations."
Alan Davies, University of Edinburgh.

Definition 3
"In the context of language teaching and learning, 'assessment' refers to the act of collecting information and making judgments about a language learner's knowledge of a language and ability to use it."
Carol Chapelle and Geoff Brindley, Universities of Iowa State and Macquarie.

Definition 4
I have to say that this is my personal favourite.
"It is a species of sortition infinitely preferable to the ancient method of casting lots for honours and offices."
F. Y. Edgeworth, in his 1888 paper The Statistics of Examinations.
Sometimes complex phenomena like language testing are explained in relation to their roots. It is often said that modern language testing dates to 1961, because this was the date of the publication of the first book on language testing by Robert Lado, and a paper setting out the scope of language testing by J. B. Carroll. Below are two PDF documents. One is a short extract from the beginning of Lado's Language Testing, and the second is Carroll's Fundamental Considerations in Testing for English Language Proficiency of Foreign Students.

  • Lado: extracts from Language Testing
  • Carroll: Fundamental Considerations in Testing

On this website you can explore many of the concepts underlying the modern practice of language testing. A useful place to start is by watching our short videos on key ideas in language testing.
I made this introductory video for in 2017. It is available from the tesolacademic website and YouTube, from where it is embedded on this web page.
Wikipedia has an entry on language testing. This is its current definition:

"Language Assessment or Language Testing is a field of study under the umbrella of applied linguistics. Its main focus is the assessment of first, second or other language in the school, college, or university context; assessment of language use in the workplace; and assessment of language in the immigration, citizenship, and asylum contexts."

This is attributed to the 2008 edition of the Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Vol 7., Language Testing and Assessment.
Tests have been used for as long as there has been organised education to make decisions about who is able to undertake certain tasks in society. The earliest references that I have discovered to selection "trials" is in Plato's Republic. As you will see in the scenarios below, the use of tests for selection impacts upon jobs, education, and many other roles in life. This means that test scores have economic value. This is not a new observation. The following quotation is from the 19th Century:

    "Parents want something to shew for education; a place in an examination list seems to gauge the advantage which they have paid for, and besides it frequently has a positive market value as opening the door to some emolument or profession" (Latham, 1887, p. 23).

It is therefore inevitable that the use of tests will generate "satellite industries", the larges of which is test preparation. Latham was the first to refer to schools that specialised in test preparation as "crammers". We still use the word today. However, there is such a thing as ethical test preparation. For further information on test preparation for some of the larger tests, and for the purposes of immigation, visit the

Test Preparation Information Pages

Definitions and key texts are useful to understand a topic. Perhaps even more powerful are scenarios where language testing is an important ingredient in decision making. Below are six scenarios, each of which provides information on the language issues at stake, and presents questions for discussion, debate, and further study.

Aviation English Testing
Call Centre Assessment
Military Language Testing
Medical Language Testing
Legal Language Testing
Testing for Higher Education