Essays have a very limited role in the assessment of second language learners.
As opposed to assessments that observe how children understood what they read, listened to, and are able to write, the traditional essay is limited to only one domain of language: writing.
In a limited way, we can get indirect clues as to overall ability in language with writing assessments. But without interactive, communicative assessments that let children read, listen, and speak, we can only directly gauge one thing with essays: writing ability. Rick Stiggins explains, “For instance, say we want to find out if students can perform certain complex behaviors such as participating collaboratively in a group, communicating orally in a second language, …There is no way to use essay responses to tap these kinds of performances...” (124). Writing ability can relate to or give us hints at how well children can read, but why not assess them directly by letting children read and then respond verbally or nonverbally to input.
We learn to write by reading, not by writing (2005). Writing merely makes reading more engaging and gives students a voice in a classroom. According to Stephen Krashen, the purpose of output is to provide more input: retelling a story to engage kids in stories and compel them to read more; writing a friend, then reading their response; asking a question to hear a response, etc.
Sadly, most essays cut off the communication: there is a short, often low-interest prompt that is not always related to a book or story children have read or heard. Children don’t get to contribute to the story and ideas are one-way. Children do not feel like their words or ideas will be used for any back-and-forth exchange, only as a test.
Research suggest that “…perceived L2 writing competence predicts L2 writing anxiety better than L2 writing achievement does” (Cheng 647). This means children do not always write to their full potential when anxious; they write how they think they can write.
This disadvantages non-traditionally academic writers, the non 4%ers, who will feel anxious about writing and under-perform classmates who expect to write well. This creates validity issues with the test itself, and may skew data.
Time can also be a factor. Many (but not all) essays do not give adequate “incubation time” as Krashen describes it (2005, 2). Children are not always given time to go home, relax, and let ideas naturally come to them, sometimes days later. Timed writes in particular do not honor the way children learn to write, and a focus on writing over responding to text can also create negative wash back (Krashen 2015, 3), and hurt motivation to focus on compelling messages.
It is important to consider the limitations of cold writing assignments or essays.
Cheng, Y.-s. (2002), Factors Associated with Foreign Language Writing Anxiety. Foreign Language Annals, 35: 647–656.
Krashen, S. The Composing Process and the Academic Composing Process. In Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Interntional Symposium on English Teaching. English Teachers’ Association/ROC, Taipei. Taipei: Crane Publishing Company. pp. 66-77. 2005.
Krashen, S. TPRS: Contributions, Problems, New&Frontiers, and Issues. July 2015. Web. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/2015_krashen_tprs-_contributions,_problems,_new_frontiers,_and_issues.pdf
Stiggins, Richard J., and Richard J. Stiggins. Student-involved Assessment for Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.