- A cryptic crossword puzzle
- A cloze (aka gap-fill) exercise
- A sudoku puzzle
- A grammar exercise where you have to write the correct form of the verb
- An algebra exercise
- one of those team-building things where you have to work out how to cross a river using a piece of string and two dead dogs or something
- a reading task asking you to identify words and phrases in context that mean the same as a given set of synonyms
So why am I bringing it up?
The point is this: do the ones about language actually test a knowledge of language, or do they in fact only test an ability to solve a problem? In other words, it strikes me that many of the tasks in student workbooks are not real tests of language knowledge whatsoever, but exercises in learning skills.
Let me give an example task to you.
Here are three rules.
If a sequence of numbers is 3 digits and ends in 9, follow it with 12.
If a sequence of numbers is 3 digits and ends in 7, change the 7 to 9 and add 12.
If a sequence of numbers is 4 or more digits, it must be preceded by 21.
and here are some sequences:
Now change the rules to those describing how to make comparative adjectives in English.
The simple fact is that many of the exercises we do with our students do not in fact test their understanding of language, but their cognitive and problem-solving capacities. Someone who can understand a logic problem, as long as the problem and a model solution is clearly presented, should be able to solve any given issue. Now, while it may be useful for someone to comprehend a given set of rules, it does not necessarily follow that that person is in fact capable of using the language in a way that is comprehensible, simply because languages have a nasty habit of not following their own laws. This is why, whenever we do level testing, we should always look at a suite of abilities rather than rely on the good old grammar test prior to deciding a language level. It also explains, by the way, why EFL students tend to score higher on formalised language tests which are generally problem-solving based tasks, than ESOL students.