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Writing ELT tests for teenagers | ELTOC 2020

ELT AssessmentI don’t want to sound too stuffy as I firmly believe that 42 is the new 21, however, teenagers today live very different lives to those who came before. Starting this blog with a quick comparison of my teenage life and my niece’s teenage life seems a good way to start. I was 12 in 1988, my life revolved around school, family, youth club, and the 4 channels on UK television. I loved music and spent all my pocket money on tapes, spending my evenings memorising the lyrics from the tape inserts. Now, Millie, my niece is 12 in 2019 and her teenage years are radically different to mine. Still, her life revolves around family and schools but the impact of technology on her life is of fundamental importance and so creates the biggest difference between our teenage lives.

But what does all of this have to do with assessment? Well, as Director of Assessment at OUP responsible for English language tests, some of which are aimed at teenagers, it’s very much my concern that what we design is appropriate for the end-user. My ELTOC talk will be about designing assessments for teenagers. Let’s start by considering why…

Why do we design a test specifically for teenagers?

Our aim is to make the test an accurate reflection of the individual’s performance as possible, and that means removing any barriers that increase cognitive load. Tests can be stressful enough and so I see it as a fundamental part of my job to remove any extraneous stress. In terms of a test for teenagers, this means providing them with test items that have a familiar context. Imagine an 11-year-old doing an English language assessment and facing this writing task. It’s not a real task but it is indicative of lots of exam writing tasks.

The 11 year might have the linguistic competence to describe advantages and disadvantages, make comparisons and even offer their own opinion. However, the teenager is likely to struggle with the concepts in the task. The concepts of work and flexible working will not be familiar enough to enable them to answer this task to the best of their ability.

This is why we develop tests specifically aimed at teenagers. Tests that allow them to demonstrate linguistic competence that is set within domains and contexts that the teenager is familiar with. An alternative question that elicits the same level of language is given below. It might not be the perfect question for everybody but it’s a question that should be more accessible to most teenagers and that allows them to demonstrate linguistic competence within a familiar context.

We have a responsibility to get this right and to provide the best test experience for everybody to enable them to demonstrate their true abilities in the test scenario. For us, behind the scenes, there are lots of guidelines we provide our writers with to try to ensure that the test is appropriate for the target audience, in this case, teenagers. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Writing a test for teenagers

Let’s think about the vocabulary used by a teenager and vocabulary used by the adults writing our test content, the potential for anachronisms is huge. Let’s look at this issue through the evolution of phone technology.

As well as the item evolving, so has the language: phone / (mobile) phone / (smart) phone. The words in parentheses gradually become redundant as the evolved item becomes the norm so it’s only useful to say ‘mobile phone’ if you are differentiating between another type of phone. For those of us who have lived through this evolution, we may use all of the terms interchangeably and writers might choose to write tasks about the ‘smartphone’. However, teenagers have only ever known the ‘smart, mobile phone’- to them, it’s just a phone! It’s not a big deal unless you’re a teenager in an exam suddenly faced with a phrase that might cause confusion. Other examples of such anachronisms include:

  • Video game, or is it just a game?
  • Do we say desktop, laptop, or just computer?
  • Would you talk about a digital camera or a camera, or would you just use your phone?
  • Are good things: cool, wicked, rad, awesome, chill, lit or maybe you just stan?

Writing tests for teenagers that incorporate the kind of language they are used to needs to be considered but this should be balanced with maintaining and measuring a ‘standard English’ that is recognised by the majority of people doing the test in different countries around the world as we produce global tests. Another important consideration is creating tasks of sufficient complexity that we can be sure of the level we are measuring.

As a test provider, we have people whose job it is to solve some of these challenges. For teachers, who write assessments for their students, some of the same challenges exist but with less resource available to solve them. This is why you should join me for my ELTOC session!


ELTOC 2020

During my talk, I’ll be sharing my expertise on all thing assessment. You’ll learn lots of tips that you can take away about how to design your own classroom assessments for teenagers.

So, if this sounds interesting to you, come along to my session and learn more about designing assessments for teenagers. See you there!


Sarah Rogerson is Director of Assessment at Oxford University Press. She has worked in English language teaching and assessment for 20 years and is passionate about education for all and digital innovation in ELT. As a relative newcomer to OUP, Sarah is really excited about the Oxford Test of English and how well it caters to the 21st-century student.


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5 Ways to Improve Feedback in your Classroom

Teacher and student high-fivingEffective feedback is the key to successful assessment for learning, and can greatly improve your students’ understanding. So how can you ensure that your feedback is as effective as possible? You need to understand what level your students are at and where they need to improve. Your students will also find your feedback more useful if they understand the purpose of what they are learning and know what success looks like.

 

Try these 5 tips to improve feedback in your classroom:

1. Ask questions to elicit deeper understanding

Most questions asked in the classroom are simple recall questions (‘What is a noun?’) or procedural questions (‘Where’s your book?’). Higher-order questions require student to make comparisons, speculate, and hypothesize. By asking more of these questions, you can learn more about the way your students understand and process language, and provide better feedback.

2. Increase wait time

Did you know that most teachers wait less than a second after asking a question before they say something else? Instead of waiting longer, they often re-phrase the question, continue talking, or select a student to answer it. This does not give students time to develop their answers or think deeply about the question. Try waiting just 3 seconds after a recall question and 10 seconds after a higher-order question to greatly improve your students’ answers.

3. Encourage feedback from your students

Asking questions should be a two-way process, where students are able to ask the teacher about issues they don’t understand. However, nervous or shy students often struggle to do so. Encourage students to ask more questions by asking them to come up with questions in groups, or write questions down and hand them in after class.

4. Help students understand what they are learning

Students perform better if they understand the purpose of what they are learning. Encourage students to think about why they are learning by linking each lesson back to what has been learned already, and regularly asking questions about learning intentions.

5. Help students understand the value of feedback

If students recognise the standard they are trying to achieve, they respond to feedback better and appreciate how it will help them progress. Try improving students’ understanding by explaining the criteria for success. You can also provide examples of successful work and work that could be improved for your students to compare.

 

Did you find this article useful? For more information and advice, read our position paper on Effective Feedback:

Download the position paper

 

Chris Robson graduated from the University of Oxford in 2016 with a degree in English Literature, before beginning an internship at Oxford University Press shortly afterwards. After joining ELT Marketing full time to work with our secondary products, including Project Explore, he is now focused on empowering the global ELT community through delivery of our position papers.


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What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

Assessment for learning (AfL) is a catchphrase with which many teachers may be familiar and yet may not feel confident that they know what it means in terms of classroom practice. Here I outline the basic ideas behind it and the kinds of classroom practices AfL may involve.

At heart, it’s what good teachers do every day:

  • they gather information about where learners are in their learning, what they know and don’t know;
  • they help their students understand what, and why, they are learning and what successful performance will look like;
  • they give feedback which helps learners ‘close the gap’ between where they are in their learning and where they need to get to;
  • they encourage learners to become more self-regulating and reflective.

The evidence is that, done well, these practices are among the most effective ways of improving learning and outcomes.

Assessment in this process is essentially informal, the information teachers gather comes in many forms, for example, through classroom dialogue, following up on unexpected answers, or recognising from puzzled looks that the students have not understood. Tests play a part, but only if they are used to feed directly into the teaching and learning process.

What would we expect to see in an AfL classroom?

Diagnostics. There would beevidence of teaching and learning that is active, with students involved in dialogue with their teachers and classmates. This goes beyond simple recall questions and will include seeking out students’ views (‘what do you think….) and giving them time to think about their answers – often with a classmate (‘pair and share’).

Clarity about learning intentions. This requires teachers to be clear about what is to be learned, how the lesson activities will encourage it, and where it fits in the learning progression. They then seek to make this clear to their students by linking it to what they have learned already and showing why it’s important. Expert teachers will use imaginative ways of introducing the learning intentions (‘why do you think we’re doing this?’) rather than routinely writing out the learning objectives.

Teachers will also clarify what a successful performance will look like, so that the learners can see the standard they need to achieve. Teachers may do this by negotiating with the class about what the learners think a good performance might involve (for example: ‘what would you look for in a good oral presentation?’). Another approach may be to exemplify the standard by using examples of work (best as anonymous work from other students). A teacher may give the class two pieces of work, she may then give the class the criteria for assessing the work (no more than two or three key criteria) and ask them, in groups, to make a judgement about their relative quality. This also provides a vital step in being able to evaluate the quality of their own work and become more self-regulated learners.

Giving effective feedback. Providing feedback that moves learning forward is a key, and complex, teaching skill. We know from research that feedback is hard to get right. Good feedback ‘closes the gap’ between a learner’s current performance and the standard that is to be achieved. Some of the key features in quality feedback are:

  1. It recognises what has been done well and then gives specific advice on what step the learner can take next. General comments such as ‘try harder’, ‘improve your handwriting’, or 7/10, do not provide the detail needed.
  2. It is clear and well-timed. The teacher gives feedback in language the learner understands and it is given when it is most useful.
  3. It relates to the success criteria and focuses on the key next steps. We may sometimes give too much feedback if we start to comment on presentational features (e.g. spelling) when these were not part of the learning intention.
  4. It involves action and is achievable.

In all this, the aim of assessment for learning is to encourage our students to increasingly think for themselves, and have the ability and desire to regulate their own learning.

Gordon Stobart is an assessment expert that has contributed to the latest Position Paper for Oxford University Press, ‘Assessment for Learning’. Download the paper today to learn about effective feedback, close the gap between where your learners are and where they need to be, and get access to exclusive professional development events!

Button to download the Assessment for Learning Position Paper.

Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. Having worked as a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist, he spent twenty years as a senior policy researcher. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group, which has promoted assessment for learning internationally. Gordon is the lead author of our Assessment for Learning Position Paper.


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5 minutes with Sarah Rogerson, Director of Assessment for the Oxford Test of English

Oxford Test of English

A new job and new products

I started at Oxford University Press as Director of Assessment for ELT on January 2nd this year. I remember at my interview being asked about what my priorities would be within the first 3 months of the job. I said one of my main priorities would be to fall in love with the OUP assessment products. Somethings you say at interviews because you have to, but this is something I genuinely meant. I need to feel passionate about what I do and see the value in what I do – I need to fall in love with what I do. So this blog is a love story! It’s a love story about me and the Oxford Test of English.

Where to begin… how about an exotic location!

In my 3rd week at OUP, I visited the OUP España offices in Madrid. I wanted to meet customers, I wanted to know about their problems, I wanted to know their thoughts about the Oxford Test of English, I wanted to know from them what my priorities should be. And so, my colleagues arranged for me to meet 3 very different types of customer in and around Madrid. I was overwhelmed by the positivity of these customers towards a new English language assessment in what is a very competitive market. Some key things that came out of this were that the Oxford Test of English is fit for purpose, friendly and flexible. They loved the fact that the exam can’t be failed, that it’s fully online, that it’s modular, and that it’s on demand. As a newcomer, this was fantastic to hear.

“I arranged to sit the test like an actual student”


As soon I got back to the UK, I arranged to sit the test as an actual student, and so my love was ignited! A 4 skill test, 3 CEFR levels, and it can be completed in 2 hours; it solves so many customer pain points. It had me hooked.

The assessment capability at OUP is strong. The Oxford Test of English is really impressive, and our placement test is also a winner! We’ll be revealing a new product in April 2020 and I’m really happy in my new role.

I’m thoroughly excited about the future and building the OUP assessment brand. If you want to know more, check out the Oxford Test of English website, or if you’re coming to the IATEFL conference this year in Liverpool, don’t miss our launch event!


Sarah Rogerson is Director of Assessment at Oxford University Press. She has worked in English language teaching and assessment for 20 years and is passionate about education for all and digital innovation in ELT. As a relative newcomer to OUP, Sarah is really excited about the Oxford Test of English and how well it caters to the 21st-century student.


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Assessing in the primary classroom

We often talk about the teaching-learning process as if it was just one thing, but we know that even though they are closely related, they are two different processes. Assessment is a third process that is intimately related to these two, so I’d like to say just a bit about learning and teaching first, and then take a look at assessment.

Understanding learning

In recent years we have all been presented with workshops, ideas, and materials that are aimed at helping to bring about changes in the way we teach, leaving behind the very “teacher-centered” classrooms of the past and working towards increasing the “learner-centeredness” that educators (and most teachers) believe will lead to greater learning.  After all, education is about learning, not what the teacher already knows. 

This change reflects a better understanding of the learning process; learning, and especially language learning, does not come about as a result of a series of rewards and punishments for certain behavior. It involves a mental effort to comprehend new information – words and structures – and connect the new to what we already know. We learn by building on our previous knowledge and using that knowledge to make sense of the new knowledge.

Changes in teaching

This understanding of learning as a construction of knowledge on the part of the student, and not a simple transmission of the knowledge from the teacher to the learner, has changed the way we teach.  We don’t base the class on rote memorization, we try to scaffold our students’ learning through activating their prior knowledge of the topic, structuring the learning tasks so that they lead to improved development of understanding.

If there are changes in our teaching practice then necessarily the way we assess the learning that is going on needs to evolve and change, also.  Reliance on an end of unit written test is not going to be the best indicator of what has been learned.

The assessment process

Assessment is how a teacher gathers information about what the students know, what they can do, their attitudes and beliefs, and what they have learned.   Gathering this information is important for a variety of reasons.  First of all, we need to inform the parents, the administration, and society in general of how much learning is going on in our classrooms, we could call this an administrative reason. 

In addition, this information is of key importance for us as teachers – it can be reliable feedback on our teaching techniques and strategies.  Does our teaching match the way our students are learning? 

Finally, and probably most importantly, assessment is a way for students to receive feedback on how well they are learning.

Assessing learning

Teachers assess before even teaching anything to have an understanding of what the students already know, both what is correct and what misconceptions they might have.  This helps by allowing the teacher to better plan the lessons – finding a starting point for the new information.  It helps the students prepare to learn new information by getting them to think about what they already know.  Putting this information up on a K-W-L chart is a good way to let everyone show what they know and find out what others know.

As the class is progressing it is important to continue to assess, to ensure that students are understanding and making sense of what is going on in the class. Asking students to put into their own words what has been going on, or explain to a classmate, while the teacher is monitoring, are just two ways to check this.

After teaching takes place there are still many options for assessing besides giving your students a test. One way is the use of portfolios.  Portfolios are examples of use or production of language that are chosen by the student as representing their best effort.

Project work is another way to assess – not only does it integrate the language skills, but it also gives students an opportunity to use their XXI century skills too.  Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are all incorporated in project work.  Project work allows students to see more real-world applications of what they are learning.

Using a project or a portfolio for assessment means that we as teachers need to inform students very clearly of the criteria that will be used. Having a rubric that will allow the teacher to identify how well those criteria have been met gives the assessment process more reliability.

Conclusions

Assessment is sometimes the part of the teaching-learning process that is not discussed much. We teachers put a lot of time into planning our lessons, finding or preparing the materials to be used, making sure our instructions are clear, and in general working hard to create interesting and engaging classes. Using the appropriate assessment techniques to see if all this work has been worth the effort is just as important.

I encourage you to venture beyond “tests” and try a variety of assessment techniques.


Barbara Bangle is originally from the United States but has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. She is the former director of the CELe language institute at the University of the State of Mexico (UAEMex), and has spent the past 35 years both teaching English and working in the field of Teacher Education.

In addition to currently being an academic consultant for Oxford University Press, she has been a Speaking Examiner for the Cambridge University exams, and is co-author of several English language teaching books. In addition to working free-lance for Oxford University Press, she currently holds a full-time teaching position at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Mexico.