Using causal explanation speaking tasks to assess young EFL learners’ speaking ability: The effects of age, cognitive, and L2 linguistic development

Wenjun (Elyse) Ding*, Guoxing Yu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


This paper examined to what extent causal explanation speaking tasks (CESTs) are cognitively appropriate for assessing young language learners’ (YLLs) L2 speaking. Ninety-six YLLs (48 from Grade 4 and 6 each) in China performed two CESTs in both L1 (Chinese) and L2 (English). They also completed receptive and productive L2 vocabulary size tests. We examined how their CEST performance scores, choice of causal antecedents, and speech utterances were related with language modes of the tasks (L1 vs. L2), grade levels, and L2 vocabulary sizes. L2 CEST performance scores were found to have significant positive correlations with L2 productive vocabulary size. CESTs were found to be generally cognitively appropriate for YLLs because their high scores in L1 performance indicated that performing CESTs is within their L1 capacity. By examining causal connectives used by YLLs, we found that learners from both age groups had cognitive ability sufficient to verbalise causality. Yet YLLs’ cognitive ability to interpret and verbalise mental states is still developing and reasoning between causal antecedents that have competing causal relationship with the final state can be cognitively challenging. We discussed the findings with reference to the design of cognitively appropriate CESTs that can assess both language and thinking skills.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-276
Number of pages26
JournalLanguage Assessment Quarterly
Issue number3
Early online date10 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank the insightful comments from anonymous reviewers on our manuscript. We are also grateful for all our participants and the teachers and educators who made our data collection possible, and for Dr Xi Lian’s contribution to co-rating and co-coding. This project was funded by China Scholarship Council and University of Bristol Joint Scholarship, Duolingo Dissertation Research Awards in Language Assessment (2020), and TOEFL Young Students Series Research Program: Research Grants for Graduate Students (2020) and TOEFL Small Grants for Doctoral Research in Second or Foreign Language Assessment (2019) from Educational Testing Service. No organisations abovementioned that have provided financial support to this project discount or endorse the methodology, results, implications, or opinions presented by the researchers.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Psychological Approaches for Studying Education


  • young learners
  • assessing speaking
  • test validation
  • thinking skills


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