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Assessment in the multi-level classroom

Frustrated student at work in classroomIt can be tricky to test classes of students who come from very different learning backgrounds. Stacey Hughes, teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, offers some advice.

Testing and assessment are important in any classroom. In addition to the obvious goal of finding out if students have learned what is required for the end of term or year, assessment also gives teachers information about what students might need more work on. It can also motivate students to study, giving them a sense of achievement as they learn (Ur:1996).

A multilevel class poses additional challenges to the teacher. It could be argued that all classes to a certain extent are multi-level. However, for the purpose of this article, multi-level will be defined as those classrooms with students who come from very different learning backgrounds, or those in which students have very different levels of proficiency. Assessment in these situations needs to be fair for all students and needs to provide enough challenge or support so as not to bore or overstretch students. Here are some ideas for assessment:

1. Set individualised targets

You could consider setting individualised targets (or get your students to set their own). In order to assess students on their achievement of their target, you may need different assessment criteria and this difference needs to be made clear at the outset. As long as the assessment is not part of a final grade (and instead part of ongoing assessment for the purposes outlined above), students will be unlikely to opt for an easier option than they are capable of. Here are some examples:

a) Choose the 5 key words you think are absolutely necessary for all students to learn, several more that would be good for them to learn and a final few that would be great if they could learn. Assign the words to each student (or get them to choose their own level of challenge). Assess students on the words you have assigned or that they have chosen.
b) Set different word limits for paragraphs and essays. At the lowest level, ask students to write a 50-word paragraph. The next level might be a 100-word paragraph while the highest level might be two 100-word paragraphs. A similar design can be made for speaking tasks.
c) Set different criteria for writing or speaking. If a student’s work is hard to read because of spelling, set the target of improving spelling and assess only on that. Another student might not have problems spelling, but may have poor subject/verb agreement, so instead, make this the focus of the assessment.

2. Break your targets into manageable chunks

Create a master list of targets for yourself, and assign 2-3 targets at a time for students.
This has the effect of making learning manageable. Some students may already be quite good at word stress, for example, while others, possibly from L1 interference, might need to work a lot on their pronunciation.

Your master list should be comprehensive and cover all language areas. For pronunciation, it might include:

a) Correct word stress on vocabulary words
b) Clear distinction between /s/, /z/ and /Id/ in past tense
c) Rising intonation on yes/no questions

For speaking, it might look like this:

a. Can ask and respond to questions about likes and dislikes
b. Can speak about likes and dislikes for 1 minute
c. Can give reasons or examples for likes and dislikes

3. Differentiate between assessment questions and let students choose their level of challenge

Again, this will work best if the assessment is not marked or graded.

a) For a reading or listening assessment, provide many different questions, and ask students to answer more for higher levels of challenge. For example, the Level 1 challenge could be to answer questions 1-3, Level 2 could be questions 1-5 and Level 3 could be questions 1-7. If you set this kind of task, make sure each question increases in difficulty.
b) Allow for levelling in answers. Level 1 challenge answers could be 1-2 words or yes/no questions, while level 3 challenge answers could be whole sentences or open-ended questions.
c) Provide optional hints for those who need it. Students could choose to do the assessment with or without hints, for example. This works well in conjunction with digital or online assessments.

4. Provide a place for students to go next

At the end of the term or school year, it is customary to test whether or not students have reached the learning goals for the course. For those students who aren’t yet ready to progress, make sure they have a class to go into that isn’t just a repeat of the level they have just done. Some courses provide a middle level between levels that caters for those weaker students, for example, English File 3rd edition Intermediate Plus. In this way, weaker students don’t feel penalised, but feel a sense of achievement in having completed a level.

Assessing students in a multi-level class differently according to their level can benefit all students by providing the right amount of challenge. This can be encouraging and create a positive atmosphere of achievement in the classroom. I hope you enjoy trying out some of these ideas.

References & Further Reading

English club. (n.d.). Teaching multilevel classes. Found at: https://www.englishclub.com/teaching-tips/teaching-multi-level-classes.htm.
Accessed 30/04/14.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: practice and theory. Cambridge: CUP.

This article first appeared in the May 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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10 Ways to Ensure That Your Quiet Students Never Speak Out in Class

woman_holding_finger_to_her_lips_shhAngela Buckingham, language teacher, writer and teacher trainer, introduces her upcoming webinar on 24th & 26th September entitled: “Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom.”

As part of my role as a teacher trainer, I have observed many ELT lessons over the years: some given by new and inexperienced trainees, others by experienced members of staff who have been teaching language for many years. One area that interests me is the teacher response to learner mistakes in a lesson and what steps are taken towards oral error correction. Even if we haven’t thought about this consciously, our stance is usually writ loud and clear. What is evident to the observer is that teacher attitudes to learner mistakes can have a profound impact on behaviours in class.

Here’s my Top Ten list for ensuring that your quiet language students will be even quieter, simply by adopting some or all of these simple classroom techniques:

  1. Always correct every error you hear
  2. Ensure that you correct in a stern way; Do Not Smile
  3. Make sure that you never praise your learners for answers given in incorrect English
  4. Don’t give thinking time – where possible, make sure you supply the answer yourself
  5. When learners do answer, respond to the language only, not to the content of the response
  6. Spend most of your lesson facing the board, computer, or looking at the textbook. Avoid eye contact with your students
  7. Ask questions to the whole class but always accept early answers from the most confident students, who should get the answer right
  8. If a student is hesitant, don’t give them time to finish. Show in your body language that you are bored listening to their attempts
  9. Seize every error as a teaching opportunity – don’t move on until everyone in the class is absolutely clear what the mistake was
  10. Be prepared to interrupt your students’ interactions at any time, so that they are using Perfect English

Or… you might want to think about doing things differently.

Error correction in the language classroom is important – my students definitely want to be corrected, and can feel irritated if they aren’t. But for teachers, what to correct, when to correct, and how to go about it are issues we grapple with on a day-to-day basis.  How can we help our learners in an encouraging way?

In my upcoming webinar we’ll explore how to categorise oral language errors and examine strategies for dealing with them, as well as evaluating practical ideas for immediate use in class.

Join the webinar, Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom on 24th and 26th September to find out more.


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Edmodo: Introducing the virtual classroom

Girl on sofa with laptop and papers

Image courtesy of Alessandro Valli via Flickr

Sean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at using Edmodo as an alternative to blogs for running web-based English language courses.

In my previous post, I discussed how blogs could be used to design, deliver and manage a complete English course. However, using blogs for this purpose has a number of potential weaknesses.

First, blogging platforms don’t have in built assessment tools. Second, while the comment/reply feature of blogs does allow for some interaction between course participants, it can get a little unstructured if there are a lot of learning activities. Finally, student privacy is a concern. Fortunately, there are some free, web-based learning management systems (LMS) that help with these problems. One such LMS is Claco; however, my favourite, which I have been using for about four years, is Edmodo.

Edmodo allows teachers to set up private, online learning environments for their students. On my blog, I posted the following learning module:

Figure 1: Learning Module

Figure 1: Learning Module

If the lesson was being done in face-to-face mode, the topic could be introduced with a general discussion about recycling before starting the reading activity. This could have been done on the blog using the comment/reply feature of the blog; however, as there are a lot of learning activities, these replies may become quite disorganized. I use the different Edmodo tools to break up the learning activities and allow for more interaction between participants.

Notes and Polls

I use these to get students thinking about the theme and start a conversation. I like the fact that the students aren’t just selecting an answer for the poll but also making comments. Notes and polls (and quizzes and assignments) can either be sent to the whole class, groups or to individual students.

Figure 2: Note and replies

Figure 2: Note and replies

Figure 3: Polling question and replies

Figure 3: Polling question and replies

Notes can also be used to give students more information, for example to introduce a grammar point.

Figure 4: Note with information about grammar

Figure 4: Note with information about grammar

Students can also post if they have a question or need to discuss something.

Figure 5: Student note with helpful information

Figure 5: Student note with helpful information

Quizzes

After reading and listening activities, students may need to do a comprehension quiz. The Edmodo quiz tool allows quizzes to be easily set up and offers features such as different question types, time limit, randomisation, and can be linked to the grade book.

Figure 6: Quiz tool

Figure 6: Quiz tool

Assignments

After writing activities or projects, students may need to submit work for grading. The Edmodo assignment tool allows assignments to be easily set up and linked to the grade book.

Figure 7: Assignment tool

Figure 7: Assignment tool

Grade Book

All assignments and quizzes can be linked to the grade book. Other nice features include the ability to award badges to students and exporting the grade book to a spreadsheet tool such as Excel. Students can also see their grades.

Figure 8: Grade Book

Figure 8: Grade Book

The above tools will help you make your online lesson more interactive. But Edmodo also has some other helpful tools. The Group tool allows you to group students into smaller working groups. Subscription and notification tools allow class participants to keep up to date with all new learning activities. The Planner tool allows you to highlight important dates and deadlines for your students. And the Library tool allows you to store and share all course related documents.

While the above examples demonstrate how Edmodo can be used in a fully online English class, I have also used it extensively with my face-to-face students. My daughter’s teacher (year 6) also uses Edmodo with her classes, but as a supplement to regular classroom learning. My daughter will go to her Edmodo class when she is at home to check for homework, deadlines and other learning materials. It allows me, as a parent, to see how she is progressing.


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Using blogs to create web-based English courses

Blogging on a laptop

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Sean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at whether blogs can be used to deliver web-based English language courses, using an example from his own experience.

In my previous posts, I discussed how blogs could be used to deliver a lesson and showcase student work. These posts were examples of how blog owners can post information to the Web on a regular basis and how blog readers can add comments.

However, over the last decade or so, blogs have become a lot more sophisticated; now extra pages can be added for additional information and widgets (tools) can be added to sidebars that add a lot of functionality and personalization (see figure 1 below). These extra features have changed the traditional blog into an interactive website which can be used in a variety of ways, one of which is to deliver English-language courses. Furthermore, blogs are easy to set up, modify and manage, so with just a little practice, even the most technophobic educator can become a competent online course builder.

web2english course home page

Figure 1: web2english course home page

The first choice is to decide on which blogging platform to use. This may seem a difficult decision to make as there are so many free blogging platforms available. Three of the most popular are blogger, tumblr and Moveable Type, and all are great platforms. But my favourite is WordPress. I have used WordPress for designing and delivering a wide range of blogs, from my own portfolio, to educational technology and English teaching sites. One such site, web2english, will be featured in this post.

web2english was an experimental English course set up to see if a fully-online course could be designed, delivered and managed using web-based tools (a DIYLMS, a do-it-yourself learning management system as opposed to using large-scale, enterprise-level learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle). Only six students were enrolled in the course, but I have run similar courses with up to twenty students enrolled. The course consisted of eleven modules: an introductory module conducted face-to-face to familiarize students with the web-based tools, and ten study modules done fully online (see table 1 below), but with a weekly face-to-face “study” morning for students only. End of course feedback from all students was very positive.

Course Schedule

Table 1: Course Schedule

 

Using Posts on the Blog

Posts were used to deliver to students modules of learning activities, with the current learning module always on top (click here to see posts). Within the posts, hyperlinks were used to direct students to the learning materials (e.g. reading and listening texts on different websites or links to documents directly uploaded to the blog). Students could use the comment feature of the posts to interact with the teacher and peers; however, as each post contained a wide range of learning activities, I split up the module into individual learning activities and posted these on another web-based tool, edmodo, thereby giving students more opportunities to interact.

Using Pages on the Blog

While posts were used for the weekly learning modules, which were dynamic in nature, Pages were used to display information that wouldn’t change. In web2english, pages have been used for the course outline, schedule and assessment rubrics. There was also a page which was used to aggregate all student work (see figure 2 below). This enabled students to quickly view and comment on other students’ blogs and podcasts and to access their collaborative presentations.

Page that aggregates student work

Figure 2: Page that aggregates student work

The number of pages that can be added to a WordPress blog is unlimited; however, the width of the blog restricts the number of pages that can be displayed in the menu bar along the top. Fortunately, depending on the theme, pages can be organized into sub-menus. Figure 3 shows an example of this in another blog.

Menus and sub-menus of pages

Figure 3: Menus and sub-menus of pages

 

Using Widgets on the Blog

While blogs are great for displaying information and getting feedback in the form of comments, other tools need to be used to make teaching and learning more effective. To do this, blog “widgets” can be used (see figure 1 above). Widgets are simply objects that allow tools to be embedded into blogs. For example, on the course home page, I used the twitter feed widget in web2english to display the latest tweets by students (they were expected to post a minimum of ten tweets per module). Text widgets were also used to add linked images on the home page. These widgets allowed students to quickly access tools for taking quizzes, doing surveys, making their own blogs and podcasts, and accessing aggregated pages of student work on Netvibes and Dipity.

While using blog posts, pages and widgets is an easy, cost-effective way to build a DIYLMS powerful enough host an online English course, be it fully online or as part of a blended-learning environment, there are some important issues that need addressing. Blogs are great for exposing learning materials and student work to a wider audience; however, this brings up the question of privacy. Fortunately, blog posts and pages can be password protected. Student assessment is also an issue as blogs have no built in assessment tools. In web2english, I used a web-based tool called ClassMarker which, for a yearly fee of $25, allowed me to quickly create assessments and provide a student grade book. I could have also used the free test tool within edmodo. One other problem with free blogs is advertising. But these can be blocked, for a fee of course ($30 dollars a year for WordPress).


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Getting Young Learners to Write

Young boy smiling and writingCharles Vilina, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, shares some tips on helping young learners to write well in English. Charles will discuss this topic in more depth in his upcoming webinar, taking place on 21st and 23rd January.

I teach writing to primary students almost every day. Fellow teachers often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult to teach students to write well? I couldn’t do it!”

I understand the sentiment. Of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), writing is often the most challenging to teach… and to learn. Many people find writing to be difficult even in their native language, so the challenge is even greater for our EFL and ESL students.

Why isn’t writing an easy task?

  • Writing is a productive skill that requires concentration and effort, even for those who write professionally throughout their lives.
  • Writing, like playing a sport or a musical instrument, requires regular practice to do it well. The more often students write, the more likely they are to improve.
  • Writing is a process. Revision is always part of good writing (which is why pencils have erasers), and revision takes patience and effort.
  • Good writing has a very important companion: good reading. Without daily reading across many literary genres and text types, it is difficult for students to develop strong writing skills.

Now for the good news.

There are strategies teachers can apply to make the task of writing easier, clearer, and even enjoyable for our students! Here are three that work especially well in my classes, for both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

1. Introduce students to good writing

Fiction:

A good story has the ability to send us on amazing journeys, create strong emotions, and even change the way we look at life. Children need to read good works of fiction, and then always consider the question, “What makes this story so good?” In every class I teach, I try to introduce good fiction, and the love of reading, to my students.

Non-fiction:

In the world of non-fiction, clear and organized writing makes all the difference when learning something new. My students and I read examples of excellent explanatory writing about topics they find interesting. In this way, students learn the best ways to inform others through writing.

2. Motivate students to write about the world around them

Fiction:

“Write what you know about” is excellent advice for a fiction writer. I encourage students to choose a setting that they are familiar with. In this way, they can focus on creating strong characters and an interesting plot within that familiar setting. They are also more able to describe the scenes with greater detail. Later, they go on to create stories in other times and places of their choosing.

Non-fiction:

I first ask my students to write about what they have seen and experienced in their everyday lives, through a personal narrative written in the first person (I). This task teaches them to be observant and aware. They learn to consider all the information that might be useful to the reader (who, what, when, where, why). Students focus on presenting what they know in a clear and organized fashion. Later, they use these skills of clarity and organization to write about subjects outside of their personal experience.

Suggestion:
One simple activity is to think of a clear topic sentence on a theme students know well, such as “I really like English class.” Write this on the board. Then, invite students to give reasons why they like English class, such as, “My teacher is always helpful.” Write these reasons on the board as students say them. After many reasons are listed on the board, ask students to write a paragraph that begins with “I really like English class,” followed by three or four of their favorite reasons.

Mind maps can help students brainstorm what they know, while organizing the information at the same time. For example, students can write and circle the words my school in the center of a sheet of paper. From this circle, lines can be drawn out to subheadings such as my friends, my classes, and my activities. Examples can branch off from those subheadings. This activity can give students a physical profile of what they can write about.

3. Emphasize that good writing is a series of steps

As I mentioned before, writing is a process. We can teach our students to achieve their writing goals more efficiently by following a specific series of steps that will lead them to a stronger piece of writing.

Here are the steps I ask my students to follow in both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

  • Brainstorm your ideas first!
    This means to write freely, allowing your ideas to flow without judging or thinking too hard. Fill the page with anything that comes into your mind. This step should be fun and creative.
  • Organize your ideas into groups
    Each group of ideas should center around one main idea. This step also allows you to arrange your ideas in order of importance, and eliminate those ideas you don’t need.
  • Write a paragraph around each group of ideas
    A good paragraph will have one clear main idea, usually stated at the beginning. Continue the paragraph with three or four sentences that support the main idea.
  • Revise your work
    As you read through your paragraphs, ask yourself, “Can I make my topic sentences clearer? Can my supporting sentences be stronger? Are they listed in the best order? Can I find nouns and verbs that are more specific, and adjectives that are more descriptive? Is my grammar and spelling free of errors?”

A final step is often referred to as “publishing” the piece of writing. This step means that students have revised and edited their writing to the best of their abilities, and are now ready to share what they’ve written with the class.

Because each of the above steps is unique, and has specific outcomes, students do not become bored or frustrated with the process. It is best to do the steps over a number of days, so that students can begin each step refreshed and ready to continue.

Suggestion:
After “publishing,” one very effective activity is called peer review. Students read each other’s pieces of writing and then write comments about them. By giving students the responsibility of looking critically at another’s writing, they are able to look more objectively at their own writing.

In closing, I would like to add some final thoughts for teachers:

  • Don’t expect perfection at any level. Writing is a lifelong pursuit, and even the most gifted writers know that they can always do better.
  • Always emphasize the more important writing goals for your students: creativity, clarity, organization, and conciseness.
  • When giving feedback, focus on one area that needs improvement per writing task. For example, does each paragraph have one main idea? Circling every error with red ink will only frustrate students.
  • Whenever possible, for every weakness you point out in a student’s writing, also point out two strengths. Confidence is a prerequisite for all great writing, and we never want to dishearten our students. Stay patient and focused, and you will see real progress over time.

With my best wishes,

Charles Vilina

Would you like more practical tips on encouraging your students to write and developing 21st Century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on getting young learners to write in English on 21 & 23 January 2014.

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