Dynamic assessment of L2 writing

“But I did everything you said and my grade is still low…” If you teach writing in an ESL or EAP class is quite likely that you routinely have a handful of students expressing their disappointment at the grades they receive. Teaching academic writing is of particular interest in my teaching setting, an EAP language program for international students who intend to pursue a masters in Education. While process writing is reinforced in my course, I often find that my students are feeling ineffective and frustrated with their writing progress. In order to help them develop their writing skills and nurture their confidence as writers I started using dynamic assessment (DA). In this article, I will try to define what dynamic assessment is and provide a model that could be easily adapted to any level. Furthermore, I will review some studies on DA and briefly outline some of its advantages and disadvantages.

The feedback we provide our students often takes the form of written comments on their final graded essays. Received by students at the end of their writing process, these comments rarely have a great impact on students’ writing development. One way to combine intervention and assessment of student writing is by using dynamic assessment. DA allows instructors to provide students with feedback on grammar, vocabulary, content, and organization while they are writing. By receiving feedback during the writing process, students are more inclined to use it to revise and edit their drafts than they would be if they received the suggestions on a graded copy (Lantolf & Poehner, 2005). They also have an immediate opportunity to try out the suggestions in their writing, allowing for meaningful applications of the feedback provided.

What is Dynamic Assessment?

DA was born a few decades ago as a reaction of dissatisfaction with traditional methods of assessment. In fact, measuring students’ current performance level cannot provide assessors with enough information about learners’ potential ability. In higher education, DA has been used as a formative assessment for several decades, initially developed as an alternative and complement to ‘‘static’’ types of assessment, such as standardized tests. Lantolf and Poehner (2004) describe DA as a “procedure for simultaneously assessing and promoting development that takes into account the individual’s zone of proximal development” (p.50). The goal of DA is to measure, intervene, and modify behaviors and to document the process of learning.

According to Shrestaa and Coffin (2012) most current approaches to DA are comprised of three stages: a conventional assessment of the abilities in question, an intervention targeting problematic aspects of learner performance, and a final assessment that parallels the initial one to assess the degree and nature of change. Pre and post-intervention levels are compared, and the difference is taken as an indicator of whether the abilities being assessed lay within the individual’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development).

The goal of dynamic assessment is not only to measure a students’ current performance, but, more importantly, to reveal the students’ learning potential, the extent to which he or she is able to absorb and integrate instruction during the mediation process. This enables instructors to formulate an optimal education intervention for each student.

One of the DA models that I’ve used consists of three parts: a pre-task (topic-choice stage, idea generation & structuring stage), mediation (provided in the form of either dialogues between instructor and students, or mediational tools such as guidelines, samples, reading materials, etc.) and a post-task. During the post-task, students are expected to use the feedback provided during the mediation phase which should eventually become part of the learners’ independent developmental ability. Every stage can be adapted by instructors to suit their students’ needs. The role of the mediator is to identify students’ problems during the pre-task and to provide the necessary mediation during the learning phase. The post-task should be identical to the pre-task in level, background knowledge, grammatical structures, new terminology, and required strategies (for example the same type of essay), but different in content.

After students try on their own to choose a topic (pre-task), the instructor will follow with topic negotiation, mostly in the form of dialogues, in which he or she might provide some hints, leading questions, suggestions and explicit feedback. In idea-generation and structuring stage, the students need to know some strategies, for example branching, and structuring techniques, such as clustering, mapping, webbing etc. After that, learners are given a task to generate ideas and define the writing purpose. Finally, they should make outlines for their compositions according to the kind of essay they need to write. In DA framework, the attempt of idea generation and structuring serves as a pre-task, and mediation is arranged immediately afterward. As a mediator, the teacher can observe learners while walking around and review and negotiate the outlines with the students if required. At this stage, a peer review of the outline might be included. After this students should start working on their drafts which should be finished for the next session. In post-task, the most important step is ‘macro-revising’. In this stage, content and organization of the drafts are to be negotiated and improved later. The mediation of the instructor and peers at this stage can include: teacher analysis of some samples, teaching relevant writing strategies and techniques and peer-to-peer interactive reading or discussion. If the stages in this model are followed carefully, every student should show some improvement in the post-task.

The studies that I reviewed show that L2 writers particularly benefit from this approach by an increased number of opportunities to interact with the instructor in different forms of mediation and feedback in the process of DA (Swanson & Lussier, 2001; Lantolf & Poehner, 2005; Anton, 2009; Birjandia & Ebadib, 2012; Shresthaa & Coffin, 2012). Instructors could also use DA as a supplement to other forms of assessment, particularly when learners have trouble internalizing the new learning items.

A major contribution of DA is the ability to identify those students who are likely to experience difficulties and to provide rich descriptions of the abilities of these students so that remedial programs may be developed (Lantolff & Poehner, 2004). Verbal and written feedback can be a powerful teaching tool if it is given while students are in the process of writing drafts. Comments on drafts of writing provide students with timely information about the clarity and impact of their writing. When students receive feedback while they are writing, they are more inclined to use it to revise and edit their drafts than they would be if they received the suggestions on a graded copy. They also have an immediate opportunity to try out the suggestions in their writing, allowing for meaningful application of what they have learned from the feedback.

On the other hand, DA critics have mentioned that, although dynamic testing has suggested promising results, it has yet to demonstrate its advantages over traditional testing following professional criteria (Grigorenko & Sternberg, 1998). In the studies that I reviewed, there seems to be a clear consensus that more research is necessary particularly in the area of implementation of the procedure during regular classroom instruction. There are reasons why DA procedures have not been widely adopted in educational settings despite the appeal of providing such rich information on individual learners. One of them is that DA procedures are ideally administered individually, which makes this type of assessment time-consuming.


In conclusion, dynamic assessment is an interactive approach to formative assessment that embeds intervention within assessment. From my experience, it is particularly useful when learners have trouble internalizing the new learning items. DA, compared with the static ways of assessment, is communicative by nature and can prepare learners to see assessment as a learning opportunity rather than something frightening. Not only that DA can combine assessment and feedback, but it also has a great potential to enhance L2 learners’ writing performance in the classroom context particularly with smaller groups of students (Taghizade & Alavi, 2014).


Alavi, M.S. & Taghizadeh, M. (2014). Dynamic Assessment of Writing: The Impact of Implicit/Explicit Mediations on L2 Learners’ Internalization of Writing Skills and Strategies. Educational Assessment, 19(16), 335–378.

Anton, M. (2009). Dynamic Assessment of Advanced Second Language Learners. Second Language Annals, 42(3), 576–598.

Birjandia, P. & Ebadib, S. (2012). Microgenesis in dynamic assessment of L2 learners’ socio-cognitive development via web 2.0. Social and Behavioral Sciences, 32(2), 34–49.

Grigorenko, E. & Sterberg, R. (1998). Dynamic testing. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 75–111.

Lantolf, J. P. & Poehner, M. E. (2004). Dynamic assessment: Bringing the past into the future. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 49–74.

Poehner, M. E. & Lantolf, J. (2005). Dynamic assessment in the language classroom. Language Teaching Research, 9, 1–33.

Shresthaa, P. & Coffin, C. (2012). Dynamic assessment, tutor mediation and academic writing development. Assessing Writing, 17(1), 55–70.

Swanson, L.H. and Lussier, M. (2001). A Selective Synthesis of the Experimental Literature on Dynamic Assessment, Review of Educational Research Summer, 71(2), 321–363.

Assessment, Writing
Published In:
Contact Fall 2016

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