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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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Easy CLIL ideas for the young learner classroom

Children in playgroundTeacher trainer, Freia Layfield, offers some practical ideas to bring CLIL into the young learner classroom.

Categorisation tasks (science)

Bring a selection of flashcards to class. Draw two large circles on the board. Label them with two different categories. For example, fruit / dairy, plastic / paper, animals / plants. You can use more challenging categories for older students, like living / non-living. Ask individual students to place a flashcard into the correct circle on the board. If the students are older and able to read and write, you can ask them to write the name of the thing in the correct circle. As a group, the students can then check and decide if the flashcards are in the correct circles or not.

Measure it or weigh it (maths)

Ask the students to measure or weigh a number of objects in class that are related to a topic you are studying. For example, weigh classroom objects or measure hands, feet and height. Ask students to draw and record their results. Allow them to work in pairs. Each pair can share their answers with the class. This exposes them all to a lot of English and develops their maths skills.

Magazine collages (art)

Bring a selection of old magazines to class, or ask the children to bring in one each. If possible, the magazines should be related to a topic you are teaching. For example, home and garden magazines if you are looking at houses, holiday magazines or brochures if you are studying countries and holidays, or wildlife magazines if you’re looking at animals and the environment. Put the students into pairs and give each pair a piece of paper. Ask the students to cut out, and stick onto the paper, pictures that are connected to a topic. For example, Places you want to go to or Animals you like. Students can share these collages with the class and talk about the pictures they have chosen. This works well with all ages.

Internet research and peer teaching (social science)

This works very well with slightly older children. Divide the class into small groups of 2–3 students. Give each group a different research topic. For example, if you’re studying animals, assign each group a country to research. They should work together to identify 3–4 animals in that country and then find out a fact about each animal. For example: The Kangaroo is a marsupial. It carries its baby in a pouch. Students can print pictures or download them onto a memory stick to show the other students in class. Each group then gets a chance to present their new knowledge, in English, to the rest of the class.

Would you like more practical tips on using CLIL with your young learners?  Head over to the Oxford Teachers’ Club for ideas and teaching tools for young, and very young learners. Not a member? Sign up here – Ii’s easy and free. 


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A professional approach to teaching professionals

EAP for professionalsSam McCarter is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer/editor with special interests in medical English communication skills, and IELTS. He is the author of Medicine 1 from the Oxford English for Careers series. In this post he explores some practical ways of bringing language to life for professionals.

Teaching professionals such as postgraduate doctors requires a number of modifications in approach on the part of any teacher coming into ESP. At a recent event, a participant was reporting a discussion with a volunteer tutor about what he, a retired consultant in the medical field, should call the members of the group he was teaching. He didn’t feel it was right to call his fellow professionals ‘students’. A seemingly minor episode, but it does highlight the shifts that we as professionals need to think about when teaching other professionals. It may be that our students carry on being ‘students’, but our attitude towards them, our behaviour and way of working does need to undergo some transformation.

Working in a team

In the medical field, if you are lucky enough, you may find yourself working as an ESP teacher with a team of health professionals in a hospital setting. You may be part of a team made up of other language professionals, a general practitioner, a nurse, a social worker, (a) consultant(s) along with professional actors/ actresses, all working together in the same training session.

You may, however, be working on your own in a language school and feel that you are isolated, but realise there is more to teaching in the medical field than just doing language practice. In this case, it may be possible to bring in retired or practising health professionals such as consultants or doctors or nurses to help with training, or arrange a visit to a local hospital or clinic. The aim is to make any classroom training as close to the hospital setting as possible, which the Medicine 1 and 2 and Nursing 1 and 2 in the Oxford English For Careers series have aimed to do with their task-based approach.

Training in a hospital setting

A typical training session in communication skills for doctors might involve a multidisciplinary approach with one or more team members where the language itself may appear incidental, but is integral, to the tasks the doctors perform. Each doctor can be given a scenario such as a 25 year-old young woman, Miss Brown, presents with a severe headache. How much detail the doctor is given can be modulated even to the point that all the doctor has is the name and age of the patient; or, if the patient has seen the doctor before, then some past history can be given. For safety and confidentiality reasons, the patient in the training is an experienced actress who has a defined role to play with medical information and details on personality, behaviour and attitude/ mood as well as accent. The history taking is watched by fellow doctors and other health professionals such as those mentioned above, including the language professional. The process is then followed by constructive feedback from the doctor himself, from the actress as the patient, the actress as herself, the other students and trainers. In this instance, the language input on the part of the language professional is dictated by the performance of the doctor in the scenario.

The classroom

The cost of providing the multidisciplinary training described in the previous section may make it difficult to replicate outside the hospital. However, it is possible to create scenarios where the doctors are the patients and their colleagues give feedback from different perspectives (social/ medical/ psychiatric) with the teacher maintaining the role of the language expert. If at all possible, you may be able to bring in actors/ actresses for the scenarios, which will enhance the training considerably. Your students can also be given open-ended problem solving tasks such as dealing with the performance of a colleague. The students discuss the problem in groups of about four within a defined time. Each group member has their own observer who gives constructive feedback on their group interaction. This latter task is a good way to improve insight and self-awareness.

The same training principles apply in other areas of ESP such as business, engineering, finance and law where a problem solving approach can be taken to bring the language to life, focusing not on language practice, but on language use.


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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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Classroom speaking challenges: it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in

Solutions Speaking ChallengeErika Osvath, an experienced teacher and teacher-trainer, explores the third of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in’. 

As I am sitting at my desk thinking over the issue of how to get weaker students to join in, my thoughts keep returning to the same questions:

Who are the weaker students?

What makes them ‘weaker’?

How do I want them to “join in”?

I can’t seem to escape them. I could just list various activities that may encourage students to participate more actively in speaking activities, but I feel have to go deeper this time. And as a result, I find myself wondering about my own preconceptions as a teacher.

I expect a “weaker student” to say less, come up with fewer ideas, make more mistakes, and be more insecure. As a result, when they join in – if they ever do – they will be like this. Does this sound familiar to you? This is known as the Pygmalion effect, a psychological principle asserting that expectations decisively influence performance.

So what can we do to adjust our expectations and thus create situations where “weaker students” feel more comfortable contributing?

First of all – and this seems quite obvious – we can create a warmer atmosphere for all the students. Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously build a more relaxed climate for students that we have more favourable expectations of – we tend to be nicer to them both in terms of what we say and how we express it. We need to consciously try to do this for all the students in the class, regardless of ability, by using accepting words, true smiles, and demonstrating understanding and openness towards them.

Secondly, we tend to teach more material to students we consider more able. The key here, then, is to expect more of the students we perceive as “weaker”. So, when setting up a speaking activity, make it clear what you expect from all students. Tell students that they must offer a minimum of three ideas during the activity and use the past perfect at least once. Students will be able to live up to these challenges if you elicit some examples and note them down on the board before they start preparing their own ideas. Then, as you are monitoring their work during the preparation time and the speaking activity, make it clear that you expect them to do the task you had set. Of course, it is important not to be pushy or unrealistic, but make your expectations clear in a gentle and supportive manner.

However, the following two factors are the most important ones in influencing the way our students perform in all activities, including speaking. Firstly, when giving students the opportunity to respond to a question in class, we tend to call on the students we think of as “stronger ones” more often. A simple way that we can encourage less able students to join in speaking activities is to increase the number of opportunities they are given to respond – and if they need more time and support, shape the answers with them and give them longer to formulate their response.

Do not give up on them thinking that “they cannot do better than this anyway”, something that can often occur unconsciously. Instead, offer small anchors in constructing ideas and sentences together in front of the class, this way encouraging them to speak and contribute in small group activities as well.

One way you can ensure equal speaking opportunities in pair or group activities is by giving every student say, three slips of paper – signs of their contribution to the task. The aim of the speaking activity is to get rid of the paper, and students can put one card down only if they contributed at least one idea or sentence.

The second important factor is the quality of the feedback we give. If more is expected of a student, they are praised more. If the teacher thinks less of a student, they are more willing to accept low quality answers with the undertone of “not worth the time or effort, because they won’t know it anyway”. Our task is to reverse this process, making sure that we do expect higher quality responses from students who might need more support too.

All these four factors will greatly influence the way less able students perform. They will start raising their own challenges and demonstrate a greater willingness to join in with speaking activities and other activities too!

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