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The Role of Diagnostic Tests in an ESL Curriculum

The Role of Diagnostic Tests in an ESL Curriculum | ITTT | TEFL Blog

This essay will present a 'teleological analysis' of the use of diagnostic tests in ESL curriculums as a means for achieving larger course objectives. Diagnostic tests are usually given to students at the beginning of a class or at periodic intervals after completing course units as a means which provide a critical link in attaining certain larger course objectives in an ESL course. An ESL curriculum has the objective of introducing and familiarizing speakers of an L1 to an L2, with the final goal of enabling each student in the class to attain the highest possible proficiency in the essential four aspects of language proficiency.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author, an alumni of ITTT (International TEFL and TESOL Training). They do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of ITTT. The content provided in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as official endorsement or representation by ITTT.

These four aspects are the receptive skills of listening and reading and the productive skills of speaking and writing. The term 'teleological' is derived from the Greek word τέλος, transliterated in English as telos, which can be translated as purpose, goal, end, termination, or limit. ITTT International TEFL & TESOL Training provides the following description of the τέλος of a diagnostic test:

"The main purpose of a diagnostic test: Diagnostic tests can show the teacher what the students know and do not know about the English language...The results of the diagnostic tests are a valuable resource that can guide the teacher in creating effective lessons and materials that meet the learning goals of the course and his/her students."

From this, we can see that ESL diagnostic tests have a main purpose which, however, is ultimately only a means to another greater end. The main purpose is "to show...what the students know and do not know about the English language," and the greater goal is so that the results "can guide the teacher in creating effective lessons and materials that meet the learning goals of the course and his/her students."

Within this description of the greater end, we can further see that there are, in fact, two greater ends: first, that of the teacher creating effective lessons and materials, and secondly, the other, even greater end or purpose which is that of meeting the learning goals of the overall course objectives. Thus course objectives are the ultimate goal, the supreme τέλος of diagnostic tests, while the effective lessons and materials are means to achieving the course objectives. Again, the course objectives are developing language proficiency in four areas: listening, reading, speaking, and writing.

The Hierarchy of Means and Ends

A diagram of this sequence could take the form of the three following formulas all of which describe the same hierarchy of ends and means:means -> means -> goal means -> intermediary goal -> ultimate goal diagnostic test -> effective lessons and materials -> course objectives

Aristotle's Concept of Teleology

Aristotle's concept of teleology can be summarized as giving an explanation of an object or phenomenon according to its material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The final cause is the four-fold purpose, or τέλος which equates to the course objectives stated above. Aristotle writes: "To give a complete explanation of (a) thing, we must assign these four causes. (Metaphysics, Book ii, 982a). Now that we understand the ultimate purpose of diagnostic tests and how they fit into the overall hierarchy of means and ends in an ESL language learning curriculum can now examine diagnostic tests in light of the three remaining causes not already discussed namely the material, formal and efficient causes and we will then have, according to Aristotle, a 'complete explanation' of diagnostic tests.

The Material Cause

A material cause is the material or substance out of which something is made. In the simplest form diagnostic tests are provided in the form of written assessments using paper and a writing utensil. Technology is being increasingly incorporated including the use of television sets, CD, cassette and DVD players and computers. While paper tests provide records sufficient for many essential uses, computers allow the records to be analyzed in greater depth and are easier for an education institution to assess and track the results in a more comprehensive and efficient manner. Also, as we will see the more technology that is involved the easier it will be to assess all four aspects of linguistic proficiency.

The Formal Cause

The formal cause is the form or structure that gives an object its shape or formal structure or arrangement. In accordance with the four aspects of linguistic proficiency the formal cause of diagnostic tests can be the format in which listening, reading, speaking and writing are all measured. Within these tests the skills of accuracy and fluency are assessed, accuracy generally referring to correct understanding and use of vocabulary and grammar and fluency being defined as the ability to produce an L2 without interruption. Another dimension of proficiency that is assessed is the aspect of comprehensive or holistic understanding.

An example of comprehensive understanding of vocabulary would be the ability to describe all parts of a house or everything in a zoo. An example of comprehensive understanding of grammar may be the ability to identify all parts of speech in a sample sentence or describe the formation and function of all 12 basic verb tenses used in the English language. The formal cause is the format in which these four types of test are presented to the test taker, and how they are structured in order to test the three dimensions of accuracy, fluency, and holistic abilities. For clarification, the material cause describes the means of presenting these formats, thus a written or computerized assessment may be presented in many different forms, sequences, or levels of complexity all of which are unique forms or formats.

Assessing Different Aspects

A listening assessment can take the form of an audio sample that a student would be required to listen to and then answer questions about. The questions may begin by assessing the ability to recognize the basic grammatical categories of nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, etc. and increase in complexity such as asking questions about whether a noun is a counting or a non-counting noun, whether an adjective is a comparative or superlative, the specific time and aspect of the tense of the verb, and finally assessing the ability for a student to draw inferences from the text to come to conclusions about what is implied but not presented. Also, the assessment may take the form of multiple audio samples which contain progressively more complex grammar, rapidity of speech, accents, or specialized themes.

A reading assessment may take the form of a written text or excerpt, or progressively more complex series of texts or excerpts which are read by the student before they are asked to complete a series of increasingly complex questions or provide a summary which will be used to assess their ability to understand the vocabulary, grammar, meaning, and implications of the language samples.

A speaking assessment may take the form of a dialogue with a peer or proctor, or a dialogue with a computer program, or the ability to use their speaking ability to describe in limited or extensive detail a certain text, visual, or audio prompt. These will be introduced so as to assess a student's ability to produce accurate and extensive vocabulary, correct pronunciation, grammatical accuracy and verb conjugation ability, and the ability to speak fluently and without interruption and grammatical complexity for an extended length of time.

A writing assessment will usually take the form of writing an essay or summary on a given topic or prompt or series of essays on various topics or prompts of increasing complexity. The aspects measured will be similar to the speaking assessment without the assessment of phonetic proficiency. What all these tests have in common is that the language level of the student will be determined by the point at which they are no longer able to answer the increasingly complex questions about the increasingly more complex samples, or that point at which their fluency is interrupted or loses coherency.

Efficient Cause

An efficient cause of diagnostic tests would be the actors or agents who create them, proctor them, and complete them. The creator is usually the educational institution which offers the course of instruction, or a third-party testing agency or a third party which creates language proficiency tests to be utilized by educational institutions, or the teacher of the ESL course. The test is usually proctored by the teacher of the ESL course; however, if the test is completely computerized, the teacher may only receive the results when the assessment is completed. Also, the assessment may be taken at a testing facility, and thus the testing facility or agency would be the proctor of the assessment. The agent who completes the diagnostic assessment will, of course, be the students themselves. Since more than one agent is required to produce and complete the assessment, diagnostic tests are an essentially cooperative project.


This is a comprehensive, albeit not a complete description of the use of diagnostic tests in an ESL curriculum which approximates the minimum necessary to provide a sufficient summary explanation of the means, format, and methodology by and through which they are created, implemented, and carried out. Additionally, we have seen how diagnostic tests serve not as a final end in and of themselves, but rather as a means to a larger purpose, or τέλος, namely the goal of total language proficiency in its four-fold aspect of listening, reading, speaking, and writing in the L2.

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