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August 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Dynamic assessment: A Vygotskian Approach to Understanding and Promoting L2 Development, reviewed by Jisoo Kim, Australia

Jisoo Kim is currently taking Graduate Certificate in Applied Linguistics at the University of Queensland. She was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. She majored in English Language & Cultural Studies at Namseoul University and completed TESOL certification at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.



It is not difficult to assume what the book wants to say is because the title of the book already has a keyword. I think the word ‘dynamic’ is quite important. Basically, dynamic assessment (DA) refuses to follow the way of conventional assessment that tends to focus on standardization and grading. Specifically, the one crucial thing the author argues consistently in this book is that assessment and instruction cannot be considered as two discrete categories. Assessment is not just a test for measuring or figuring out what the learner’s level is but a useful means to find out what forms of scaffolding should be offered to the learners (Poehner, 2008). This belief has a thread of connection with Vygotsky’s view on the relationship between assessment and instruction. Although the view of DA can sound fuzzy or too ideal in some ways, the fact that the ultimate goal of the assessment is learners’ growth and teachers at least need to keep this in mind is undeniable.

The book is separated into two parts. In part 1, the main concept of DA based on Vygotskian theory is introduced. In part 2, the book shows how the approach is applied to the L2 (Second language) learning classroom by offering a plenty amount of examples.

In chapter 1, an overview of DA is provided. To access the nature of DA, formative assessment which aims to acquire information about learners’ defects to prepare customized instruction for individuals is introduced.

Then, the view of DA on the relationship between assessment and instruction – monism - is identified by comparing it with the conventional form of assessment. Specifically, the author briefly explains the concept of NDA (Non-Dynamic Assessment), which is based on the dualism of assessment and instruction and focuses on the measurement of learners’ current ability.

Poehner believes that unlike NDA, DA cares not only learners’ current abilities but also their potential abilities by seriously considering ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), which refers to the area where learners' potential can be activated by guidance.

In chapter 2, an essential concept of sociocultural theory, which was proposed by Vygotsky, Zone of Proximal Development (1896–1934) is introduced.

Social interaction plays a core role for learners’ cognitive development and a mediator (teacher) has a responsibility to give learners enough chances to intervene in and to offer them suitable assistance that called mediation in this book (Poehner, 2008).

The author adds that cognitive development – internalization - is the product of psychological means, which is operated by being mediated during interactions.

In chapter 3, several models of DA that are divided into two different approaches, interventionist and interactionist, are presented. The author summarizes the interventionist as an approach that accepts using a standardized procedure to explore learners' ZPD and give them prompts and feedback.

This book, however, emphasizes Feuerstein’s Mediated Learning Experience (MLE) which involved in interactionist DA. Unlike interventionist, this approach avoids using any forms of standardization. In MLE, learners’ capacity to learn is considered flexible, not fixed. It means their abilities can be changed by being offered timely and appropriate mediation (Feuerstein, as cited in Poehner, 2008).

That is the mediator is supposed to keep tracing learners’ responsiveness to the mediation during the collaborative interaction and tailor the mediation according to the learners' needs and it leads to the development of learners' ZPD. In this process, standardization is not considered as necessary and instructing and assessing also must be a single activity that is performed simultaneously.

In chapter 4, criticism, which targets to the radical and representative approach, interactionist DA, is given. The main critique summarized by the author is that in DA, the objective of assessing - learners’ ability - keeps changing while it is evaluated because of mediation, which means validity and reliability of the assessment are missing.

On this critique, the author disputes that the loss of reliability caused by changed ability is not considered as a problem but as evidence of the enhancement of learners' ability and that is the what DA seeks to.

In the second part of the book, the author demonstrates how to understand, promote and profile L2 development through DA by providing many excerpted dialogues between teachers and learners in the L2 classroom context and sharing findings of relevant studies.

In chapter 5, Poehner brings MLE approach, radical interactionist DA, up again as it is the most suited to the classroom context.

By looking at examples of dialogic interactions and relevant studies of classroom-setting DA, the author argues that mediation should be in a highly sensitive mode to learners’ fluctuating needs and ZPD.

He adds that tasks, which performed by learners and a teacher in a collaborative way, should induce the learners to face new tasks which is more challenging over time, to make them keep progressing towards the next zone where their potentials are still in a ready-to-develop mode.

In chapter 6 and 7, Poehner analyses dialogues between students and teachers to show that DA provides teachers with more advanced insight into the learners’ potentiality than NDA. For example, while DA allows teachers to interrupt learners and give prompts or require clarification, in NDA, there is no place for interaction and two learners, who have different problems and ZPD, are evaluated as the same because the detailed causes of individuals' error are overlooked.

Moreover, the effectiveness of DA is demonstrated by reporting the positive changes in the interaction between a teacher and learners over time. Being less dependent, noticing their errors by verbally explaining their reasoning and trying to self-correct by employing strategies like jotting down spelling are presented as evidence of the learners' development.

In chapter 8, the author says that the complicated collaborative performance by a teacher, learners and tasks in DA can be more handleable by putting it into a coherent theoretical frame. Then, three stages of human action proposed by Gal’perin is presented.

According to Gal’perin’s suggestion, how the learners explore the task, what they produce and how they use the provided mediation are exhibited through learners’ verbalization. In each stage, problems occur and they are resolved through the learner- teacher interaction and the ideal outcome is that the learners’ autonomy grows over time and new tasks are given continuously. The author demonstrates how it works by giving explanations along with excerpts.

In the final chapter, the author presents other domains where DA can be applied along with the results of relevant studies. Using computer systems as a supplement of human mediators, adopting peer-to-peer assistance which allows students to help each other even while the test is conducting are suggested.

Poehner, also, says that DA can be used for the elderly by discovering the elements which cause a cognitive decline in advance. He lastly highlights DA’s potential contribution to the justice of the world and at the same time, he suggests a reality check by throwing doubt on the nature of the conventional test which plays a role as gatekeeper rather than a motivator for development.

In terms of content, the book is definitely well-organized. The way the book introduced the information is quite reasonable. The book deals with theory, models and some issues first and then moves on a more practical stage. That helped me to understand more easily what the author wants to say. In the same vein, the book explains in detail about every essential but unfamiliar theory and jargon. One of the strengths of the book is that the author dealt with sufficient criticisms of his opinion and provided enough supporting information for his counterargument as well. Especially, in terms of a critique of validity, he succeeded in neutralizing the criticism that is based on the traditional meaning of assessment by explaining the difference between NDA and DA.

However, ironically, the downside is caused by the author’s overly passion to explain and back up his argument and the main point of the book. That sometimes made me feel like that he repeated the same points several times unnecessarily. In addition, in my personal opinion, even though the author’s intention to persuade the readers to think that DA is a more advanced and ethical way of assessment seems successful, I think there is a lack of solutions about how to spread DA more generally in real life. In other words, in real schools and even universities, grading is inevitable and sometimes it is needed especially when there are too many learners should be treated by a teacher. Everybody knows that every learner has a right to develop and a second chance should be given. But how to change people’s conventional thought is a vital point. I think that if he had added some suggestions or exact solutions instead of only giving pieces of evidence to counter the criticisms, it would have been a perfect book.

I would like to recommend this book to all potential teachers and even also current teachers. One of the outstanding factors is that author brings many other experts’ opinions and theories to support his views or sometimes use them to introduce other views of his opinions as well and that point allows readers to obtain a huge amount of new information while they keep reading on this book and I believe it will be really helpful. 



Poehner, M. E. (2008). Dynamic assessment: A Vygotskian approach to understanding and promoting L2 development. Boston: Springer.


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