Assessing Grammar

James E. Purpura
Cambridge Language Assessment Series,
Cambridge University Press, 2004, 305 pages
ISBN: 0-521-80281-4

One of a series of eight books covering the assessment of all the language skills, Assessing Grammar is a comprehensive look at the body of grammatical knowledge with the aim of assisting teachers to develop assessment techniques to test learners’ grammar.

About one-third of the book is devoted to definitions of grammar and grammatical ability, research into learning, teaching and assessment, and the role of grammar in communication. This section is a useful overview of theory and literature, but also attempts to provide a justification for the testing of grammar and its place in communicative methodology, the conclusion being that we test use of grammar where knowledge of structure is implicit. The Cambridge ‘Use of English’ tests are examples of this with which we are all familiar. The majority of the book deals with the design and development of tests and tasks to measure grammatical ability, logically following a progression from construct to task, and including an interesting appraisal of learning-oriented and self-appraisal assessment types. Following a discussion how grammar has been assessed in standardised tests, particularly those used in international examinations, the author tackles the question of the future of assessing grammar, bearing in mind the relatively traditional nature of current test types and the need to bring the testing of grammar into line with the more progressive aspects of the assessment of the four main skills.

There is renewed interest in grammar as a result of the inevitable reaction to the trend towards fluency rather than accuracy, and this book will appeal to those who believe strongly in the importance of grammar. However, given the current trends, particularly in Europe, towards skills-based tests of achievement which incorporate elements of grammatical knowledge and use, there may be limited interest in a book which seems to deal primarily with grammar as independent from the four main skills. The publisher’s comment on the back cover of the book may be indicative of the potential market – ‘If you need to evaluate your students’ grammar then this book is essential reading.’ This necessity may well be the central issue.