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Assessment for the Language Classroom – What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_271564088Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. Today, he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar Assessment for the Language Classroom.

What’s on the menu?

If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.

“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”

Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.

Assessment ‘bread and butter’

The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.

‘Make or break’ testing

The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.

Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?

“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”

When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).

Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.

Getting the right skills

Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.

In the webinar on 16 and 17 February, I’ll be talking about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively. Please feel free to ask Anthony questions in the comments below.

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References:
Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.


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Assessment in the mixed-ability classroom

Student looking confused

Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She joins us on the blog ahead of her webinar ‘Mixed-ability teaching: Assessment and feedback’, to preview the session and topics she will explore.

One of greatest challenges facing teachers of mixed-ability classes is assessment, especially in contexts where uniformly administered tests and giving grades are part of the requirements of the educational system.

These forms of assessment, however, tend to lead to unfair results. They are like holding a running event where participants set off from a different spot on the track. Naturally, in each case the distance covered and the rate of progress will depend on individual abilities. It is easy to imagine that there may be several students who cover the same distance within the given period of time, putting in the same amount of effort, but will be awarded with different grades for their performance. This can be extremely disheartening to them and may easily result in lack of motivation to learn.

Also, students tend to interpret their grades competitively, comparing their own performance to the others in the group, which, again, leads to anxiety and low self-esteem, becoming an obstacle to further improvement. The gap between learners, therefore, is very likely to increase, making learning and teaching ever more difficult.

We, teachers, are therefore challenged to find different forms of assessment within this framework, where all students achieve the best they can without feeling penalized, but continue to remain motivated and invested in their learning.

Self-assessment and continuous assessment are crucial in the mixed-ability classroom as they

  • give learners the opportunity to reflect on their individual results,
  • give learners information on what they need to improve in in smaller and manageable chunks
  • help learners draw up action plans that suit their language level and learning preferences
  • inform the teacher about their teaching and about their individual students.

Let’s look at a few practical examples.

My own test
Students write one test question for themselves at the end of every lesson based on what they have studied. You may need to give students a few examples of such questions initially. At the end of the term students are invited to sit down with the teacher to look back at all these questions and use them as the basis for checking and discussing their progress. Alternatively, depending on the age and the type of students in your class, they can be paired up to do the same thing. With this technique it is interesting that learning takes place when the question is written, not when it is answered.

A practical way of providing students with the opportunity to go through the same test at their own pace and have time to reflect and re-learn is the Test-box technique.

Test-box
Make several copies of the end-of-unit tests and cut them up, so that each exercise is on a separate piece of paper. Place them in the test box (make sure it is a nice-looking one to make it more appealing!) and keep it in the classroom. Allocate “test-box times” regularly, say, every second week for half an hour, when students have the chance to do the tasks they choose from the box. It is important to inform students of the minimum amount of exercises they have to complete by a given date.

How to use the Test-box
1. Students choose one exercise from the box.
2. They write their answers in their notebook, not on the paper.
3. As soon as they finish, they go up to the teacher, who marks their answers.
4. If all the answers are correct, they are given full credit for it and it is noted down by the teacher. In this case they choose a second exercise.
5. If there are mistakes, the student goes back, trying to self-correct using their notes or books, or they can decide to choose a different exercise from the test box.

The great thing about this technique is that although I tell students the minimum requirement for a top grade, they become less grade oriented and start to compete in learning rather than for grades.

Of course, there are many more advantages to it, which we are going to discuss in our webinar as well as look at further practical ways of assessment and how to best combine them in the mixed-ability classroom.

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‘Value for money’: Helping your students get more from words and phrases they learn


Young woman wearing headphones and writingJenny Dance, who runs a language school in Bristol, UK, tells us why pronunciation training is so important for her students and what led her to find a system that would allow them to practice more effectively.

Helping learners improve their English pronunciation is a challenge for all EFL teachers – native and non-native speakers alike. English has so many unusual spellings, borrowed words and unpredictable pronunciations that even the most dedicated learners and patient teachers can find it tough to make good progress in this area.

And yet in my experience, improving a learner’s pronunciation is one of the most effective ways of raising their overall level of English. In his ‘Pronunciation Matters’ blog (5-Jan-12), Robin Walker, pronunciation expert, comments that pronunciation training helps with fluency, confidence and listening skills – all of which are at the forefront of effective communications. He goes on to quote studies showing the impact poor pronunciation has on writing, reading, vocabulary acquisition and grammar.

I wanted my students to be able to make the most of the English they had already worked hard to acquire. They may have been able to understand the word ‘comprehensibility’, and even write it with confidence – but I wanted to hear them using it fluently in their speaking, too. Improving pronunciation is, in a way, getting more ‘value for money’ from the words and phrases already learned.

It was also important to develop a more robust and objective system for helping learners assess, practice and improve their pronunciation. I felt students would benefit from seeing and having controlled access to the sounds they were producing. And with the rise of the touch screen and hand-held personal computers, I could see there was a big opportunity to enhance the way teachers and students approached pronunciation training.

Misplaced stress in a word can render it far less intelligible than an incorrect vowel sound. We aim to remedy the high frequency, high impact errors to help learners improve quickly. So with the help and feedback of a number of my students, we worked with Oxford University Press to develop Say It: Pronunciation from Oxford. The concept is simple: listen to the model sound (30,000 words, taken from the Oxford Dictionaries), record yourself, compare yourself and re-record until you’re happy you have made a good match to the model.

Using Say It in the classroom, either one-to-one or with a small group of students is a highly effective way to work on pronunciation skills. The teacher doesn’t need to listen and correct in real time – instead, you can review and discuss the sounds together, creating a real sense of partnership in the learning process. Because the assessment is clear and objective (for example, you can compare the stress placement at a glance), both teachers and students can understand the changes required to improve. Often, students are able to correct themselves to a large degree, which is a much more powerful learning experience.

sayitprintscreen

Recent research shows that pronunciation is learned at a cognitive level (Gilakjani et al, 2011), in much the same way as a tennis player will visualise hitting the baseline rather than think about all the physical, mechanical elements required to execute the perfect tennis stroke. Say It seems to produce a cognitive response, with users responding quickly to the visual signposting of key features: stress placement and syllable structure. The soundwave and visual indicators give the student the ‘access points’ to the sound they need to produce.

Using Say It, learners can visualise, touch, listen to, dissect and perfect their pronunciation. It’s a quick, fun and effective way to practise and learn. For my students, pronunciation training is not about sounding like a native speaker, but rather being confident that you’ll be understood. As Camille, an FCE student told me about her experience using Say It: ‘Now, when I get on the bus and ask for a ‘single’ ticket, the driver will understand me!’

You can find out more about the Say It app for iOS here.

Reference

‘Why is pronunciation so difficult to learn?’ A. Gilakjani, S. Ahmadi and M. Ahmadi,

English Language Teaching 4 (3), 74.


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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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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.