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The value of continuous assessment

continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

How do you check your students’ comprehension of a concept or skill? Stacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some ideas for checking students are on the right track.

Aren’t students tested enough?

Surely the last thing students need is more tests! Continuous assessment is not the same as testing. For one thing, tests are marked or graded whereas continuous assessment isn’t. Continuous assessments are quick checks for the purpose of letting the teacher and student know if more revision is needed. They are also useful for keeping track of progress between more formal tests.

Ideas for continuous assessment

Below are some ideas for quick checks teachers can use throughout the year.

  1. Reading speed quick check: Give students a text to read from the course book or a graded reader. Make sure it is the right level for the class or student. Ask the students to read for exactly one minute. Stop them and ask them to mark the last word they read. Ask them to count the number of words they were able to read in one minute and note it down. Repeat this several times during the term so that students can see if their reading speed is increasing. If it is not, remind them of reading strategies: guessing unknown words from context, skipping unknown words, reading groups of words rather than single words, etc.
  2. Listening for gist quick check: Give students a short listening that is at their level. Play the listening once, ask students to discuss what they understood, then play it again. This time, ask students to write a short (1 sentence) summary of what the listening was about. For example: The listening was about the dangers of mountain climbing. At first, students will find this difficult to do and the focus is not on grammatically correct sentences, but on conveying the main idea. Repeat this many times during the term to see if students are improving their ability to understand the main idea of things they listen to. This will also show students if they need to do more listening outside of class and if they need to work on their listening for gist skills.
  3. Vocabulary quick check: Write any new vocabulary from the lesson on the board for students to copy down. Ask them to put a tick next to words they feel they can remember the meaning of, a cross next to words they can’t remember and a star * next to words they feel they know really well and can use in a sentence. This will let students know which words to study more and, if you collect the papers, you will quickly see which words need revision in the next lessons.
  4. Grammar quick check: Grammar quick checks can focus on form or use. So, for example, if you were teaching present continuous for making arrangements, you could ask the students to write the answers to your questions:a. What do I need to remember about the form of the present simple? (e.g. BE + base form + ing)
    b. Are there any spelling rules to remember? (e.g. drop the -e and add – ing)
    c. What have we been using the present continuous for today? (e.g. making arrangements to do something together)

    These could be collected and checked by you or you could give the answers and ask students to check their own. Ask students if they were able to answer. If they could they can feel like they have learned something and if not, they know what to study.

  5. Ticket out the door: Any of the above assessments can be used as a student’s ‘ ticket out the door’.

Continuous assessment isn’t new. Teachers naturally assess whether or not their students have understood or mastered a concept or skill before moving on. This non-graded formative assessment is also valuable for students for several reasons. Firstly, it clarifies what content or skills the teacher thinks are important to learn which enables students to review relevant material. Secondly, it shows students the relevance of classroom activities. If performance on tasks is assessed – even informally – then students are more likely to understand why the activity was important. Finally, continuous or formative assessment helps students realise where they are in relation to where they should be in terms of skills and abilities.

 

This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Blended and cooperative learning in EAP

Stacey HugBlended and cooperative learning in EAPhes, a teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, offers some practical ideas for blended learning in EAP.

Although the idea of blended learning is not new, most people now associate it with including computer or tablet and internet use in the classroom. These tools can be used to expand the range of possibilities for communication between students and teachers. Here are some ideas to experiment with.

Train your students to use internet

It may seem odd to think about training students to use technology – after all, they are digital natives. However, many students have not yet developed a critical mind-set when it comes to assessing whether or not information gleaned from websites is reliable or valid. They also may not be very adept at using key words to search for academic articles and books – resulting in either too many or too few hits or information that is not relevant to their research.

1. Teach students to recognise which sites are reliable for their purposes. Show them Google Scholar as a starting point and teach them to recognise more generally reliable URL endings: .org; .ac; .gov; .edu. Teach them to think about who wrote the page and why.

2. Train students to use the university library search engine to look for information. They will need to understand how articles are kept in the databases and how to narrow or broaden their searches using key words and limiters: and, or, not, “…”, etc.

3. Teach students how to use online bibliography tools to create their lists of references. You could start by referring them to Education Technology and Mobile Learning which lists a number of bibliography tools. The university librarians may also have some ideas for good ones to use.

Using technology for collaboration

There are a multitude of resources that teachers and students can use for collaboration. They can help make teacher-student communication more efficient and can help students work together. If your university has a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard, the tools will already be available for you to use. If not, you can find resources on the internet which can be used for similar purposes.

1. Set up a discussion forum. Post a relevant question or topic and ask students to contribute to the discussion. Make sure they respond to each other rather than just posting their own views – this will make it much more valuable as a forum.

2. Create group or class wiki pages. Use the university platform or a wiki space such aswww.wikispaces.com to set up a virtual space for news, collaborative project work and assessment. Wiki spaces are also useful for uploading handouts for students who were absent from the lesson.

3. Give audio and video feedback on papers to save marking time, give fuller feedback and add listening practice. Visit the University of Edinburgh page to read some case studies.

4. Flip the classroom once in a while. Use screencasts to teach a point, then use the class time for a seminar discussion or debate.

5. Ask students to work in groups to create a video documentary about university culture and the changes new students will have to adjust to.

Using technology in the classroom

Many students will have tablets or laptops and may prefer to work from them in the classroom. A majority may also have smartphones that can be used for learning.

1. Encourage those students using laptops or tablets to look up information on the internet while engaging in the lesson. Post information on the class wiki that they can access while in class as part of the lesson.

2. Point students to useful apps that they can use for learning: the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, Practical English Usage, Headway Phrase-a-day and English File Pronunciation are all excellent apps for independent study or they can be incorporated into the lesson. Find out more here.

3. Ask students to record decisions made in a group discussion using their smart phone. Then ask them to email it to another group to listen to as a way of comparing information between groups.

This article barely scratches the surface of how blended learning can be used in EAP settings. Remember to think first of the pedagogical aim, then look around to find the right technological tool that could help forward that aim. If you are interested in exploring blended learning further, these resources provide plenty of additional information:

1. White paper for support, guidance and best practice ideas on implementing tablets in teaching and learning

2. British Council Report with 24 international case studies which illustrate different blended learning scenario

And finally, for some tips on ways to use technology in the classroom, visit the digital resources pages on the Oxford University Press blog. In particular, you may find the following helpful:

1. Edmodo: Introducing the virtual classroom

2. 5 Apps every teacher should have in 2014

3. Using blogs to create web-based English courses

 

This article first appeared in the April 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Authenticity and autonomy – for learners and teachers

young asian teenagerKeith Morrow, an ELT consultant and trainer, reflects on how ‘authentic’ activities can provide an effective learning and teaching experience in the ELT classroom, ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

Two buzz words in one title. Not bad! How authentic are you feeling today? Will the real you be going into class to do real things? And are you feeling autonomous? A free spirit or a cog in the machine?

For a long time we have thought about ‘authenticity’ mainly in terms of materials. Let’s use real material from the real world in class. Down with stilted dialogues about John and Mary, up with real texts from magazines – or of course from the Internet. They are bound to be more interesting, because they are real. Umm, well – are they? Last weekend I got a notice from the tax authorities reminding me that I owe them some money. This was pretty boring even for me, but for a learner of English in a classroom anywhere in the world, being made to read my tax demand would be absolutely deadly. It has no connection to their world, and so they how could they engage with it? To use a distinction that Henry Widdowson made nearly 40 years ago, the text is ‘genuine’ – but the only person in the world for whom it is ‘authentic’ is me.

I think that finding ways to make activities ‘authentic’ for learners is at the heart of good teaching. But what does this involve? How can we do it?

Comments and suggestions are welcome. I’ll be exploring this and making some suggestions in the webinar I am leading next week on Tuesday 15th July and on Wednesday 16th July, so please come and join in.

And while you are at it, what about ‘autonomy’? What can we do in the classroom to help learners to take charge of their own learning? And equally intriguing – what can we do to help teachers to develop their own skills? Again, please share your comments and suggestions.

In the webinar I’m going to be drawing on two articles from ELT Journal to illustrate some ways of doing both of these, and I hope to be able to share links with you so that you can access the articles free of charge.


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How to survive in the freelance market – Part 3

woman using megaphoneThis is the third of a six part series of articles from two ELT professionals who have successfully done just that: Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol. Here, they share advice on mapping out a marketing strategy.

Following on from our previous articles, once you’ve thought about your income and expenditure needs, defined your services, carried out a SWOT analysis and researched your potential market and competitors, the next step is thinking about how to market and sell your training to clients and differentiating yourself from similar organizations.

Where to start?

Your business strategy is essential and also provides your starting point. You need to know where you are now, where you’re going and why. Your marketing strategy must then match your business strategy.

The Market Mix 4 Ps is a good starting point. Get ready to define your Product, and in the case of ELT, your service. The place, promotion and price are the other three Ps. When thinking of the place, consider whether you’ll offer your services virtually or face-to-face, and whether you’ll offer them from home, a hired training room, the clients’ premises or elsewhere. Promotion refers to the channels you’ll use to communicate what you have to offer; researching your market and potential competitors can help you define these. With regard to price, you’ll need to think of the value of what you’re offering in its own right, but also relative to current market conditions, your competitors, and other factors.

Getting noticed

There’s no single ‘best’ way to market your ELT services. First, think about your prospective clientele and where they turn for information. If they read industry-specific journals, why not submit an article that draws on your expertise in this field. If they go to conferences, consider presenting some research or running a workshop. Conferences can also be useful in developing contacts with your peers, which in turn can lead to future project collaboration. Professional-looking business cards are essential, as is an online presence. Do you have a website or at least an online profile? Can you or your services be easily found online when doing a search for your area? How are you building a brand around your name? It’s not something which can be done overnight and requires patience and a step-by-step approach and a great deal of patience.

Building relationships and serving needs

Marketing is all about serving needs. Serving your customers’ needs requires skills in building relationships, finding out what they need and considering how you can meet those needs. You might even be able to create a need that a client was previously unaware of, which you, of course, can fill.

When you meet with potential clients, focus on listening to what’s important for them, rather than trying to push your services. When you truly understand their needs, you’ll be better positioned to package what you can offer in a more suitable way.

Get involved in ‘the business’ of language teaching. If you’re a freelancer, you’re the service provider and the school/client is your customer. Treat them like one. Care for them. Remember: they aren’t obliged to fill your schedule.

Sales

Sales and Marketing are inextricably linked. It’s essential that you’re comfortable presenting, negotiating, and talking about prices and money if you’re going to be selling your services. This doesn’t come easy to many, but you can actually find tips in coursebooks in the sales, marketing, presentations and negotiations sections. Remember all those roleplays you’ve done with your learners? Apply the same principles to your meetings with clients. With practice, it gets easier!

If a potential client schedules a meeting with you, they’re probably also talking to your competitors. Don’t wait to reply to that email or draft that offer until tomorrow. Do it today. Complacency and overconfidence can be deadly. And even if your client is a long-standing and satisfied one, always assume that could change at any moment. Fend off competitors by continuing to offer tailored, top-quality services that differentiate you from the rest.

Sometimes you may get a training contract with more training than you can deliver. This is when it becomes necessary to hire / subcontract other freelancers to work on your behalf. Remember they’ll be delivering the training under your name and your brand, and this can be pretty scary at first. So the importance of continued quality control in such instances can’t be stressed enough.

Finally, a marketing plan is always in a state of flux. You need to monitor it regularly and adjust as necessary to react to changing market conditions and stay aligned with your overall strategy.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

 

© Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs to be activated, and activities such as discussions, questionnaires, quizzes, brainstorms, and vocabulary-anticipation can all be used to do this.

For example, when you saw the title of this piece, you probably started thinking about what it might mean, what the arguments in the piece were likely to be, whether you wanted to read it, and so on.

So assuming you still do want to read it…

Bottom-up processing starts from the text. It assumes that by working on a combination of different aspects of the written or spoken text, the learner can increase their ability to comprehend it. These might be very “micro-” elements, such as the fact that we tend to insert a “w” sound between certain vowels; or they could be at a more “macro-” level, such as searching for synonyms within a text. The key idea here is decoding.

For example, in order to understand the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”), you needed to work out that the first 17 words are the subject (a complex noun phrase), that the verb comes next (“has been going on”), followed by an adverbial (though unless you are a grammar geek, you won’t have used these terms). Identifying the verb is a key aspect of decoding complex texts.

Improving the ability to decode

Most people would agree that we use a combination of the two approaches when we are processing a text. We tend to switch from one to another as is needed. But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true. If you are in a noisy café, and can’t “decode” what your friend is saying (bottom-up), you tend to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the world, or your friend’s usual speech habits.

Within this framework, the idea of “comprehending a text” needs to be defined. Many activities in coursebooks are essentially asking the learners: “Did you understand this text?” – i.e. the one in front of them. This can work as an assessment or diagnostic tool, but the danger is that it does not prepare the learners for the next text. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

We can do this to a limited extent with top-down activities – for example, we can train learners to use prediction techniques to anticipate the content and language of a text. Furthermore, classroom research and teacher experience tell us that top-down activities such as the ones listed above can be integrated easily into lessons, are motivating and fun, and enhance the overall experience for the learner. So we should not discount top-down activities entirely.

However, common sense tells us that we are often in situations where we are less able to use top-down skills, for example, in exams, or simply when we turn on the radio at random. At this point, our ability to decode becomes key. And it is with bottom-up approaches that the training aspect comes into its own.

Vocabulary, of course, is vital. The wider your vocabulary, the more fluent your reading or listening is likely to be. However, bottom-up skills remain important because they work on aspects of the text that are useful even when the learner’s vocabulary level is high. We have all heard learners say plaintively “Well, I know all these words, but I still didn’t get what they were saying!” For this reason, reading and listening activities need to include work on decoding text.

Subsequent blog articles will explore how training in bottom-up decoding can be introduced painlessly into the classroom.

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