Simulating Real-World Context in an Email Writing Task: Implications for Task-Based Language Assessment

John M. Norris*, Shoko Sasayama, Michelle Kim

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Accomplishing a communication task in the real world requires the ability not only to do the task per se but also to manage aspects of the context in which it occurs. For this reason, simulations of target language use contexts have been incorporated into the design of communicative language tests as a way of enhancing the authenticity of assessment task performance. Although some contextual factors may increase extraneous cognitive load and distract learners from focusing on the task at hand (Sweller, 1994), they represent important design considerations in task-based language assessment (TBLA), where the purpose of assessment is to determine what second language (L2) learners can do with the target language in the real world. In that sense, the extraneous cognitive load might well be part of the construct we are interested in assessing. Accordingly, the current study simulated aspects of a real-world task performance context as part of an email writing task assessment. Simulated context was operationalized as (a) additional information about the task scenario, (b) a visual image to simulate the physical context, and (c) an audio to replicate the real-world experience. A total of 276 L2 English learners performed the email task, half with simulated context and the other half without it. Findings revealed that, when presented with simulated context, the tasks were perceived by participants to have induced more time pressure and to be more interesting. In terms of performance effects, the provision of simulated context negatively affected the syntactic complexity of participants' writing but positively affected their syntactic fluency. It also led to greater discrimination among learners at different proficiency levels on various measures of language performance. The paper concludes by highlighting implications for task design and validity evaluation, especially in TBLA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalETS Research Report Series
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023 Dec


  • L2 writing
  • cognitive load
  • email writing
  • simulated context
  • task-based language assessment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Applied Psychology
  • Statistics, Probability and Uncertainty


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