That’s usually my reaction when I hear teachers talking about testing young learners.
“So, how do you decide what to teach them? How do you know how to teach them? Testing young learners gives you important information.”
As a friend said this to me I realised my problem was with the word “testing”. For me, testing is judging and labelling, not teaching. Of course, I have always gathered information about my learners and used it to help me teach better. Testing is one way to gather information, but testing young learners needs to be a friendly, positive experience for them. You need to consider their age, use bright colours and fun images, and give them a sense of achievement for having gone through the experience.
Making testing a positive experience
In her book, Teaching Young Language Learners, Annamaria Pinter writes: “In order to understand what children have learnt, teachers may need to use a variety of assessment methods.” Along with observation, portfolios, and project work, testing can be a valuable tool, providing teachers with information quickly and easily. It is important, however, for teachers to take out any of the stress and tension usually associated with testing and work to make it a positive and motivating part of the learning experience.
Understanding the range of abilities in your class
The test also needs to be useful. After all, you are, in essence, gathering information about your learners to help you teach better. Firstly, information from a test can help a teacher place learners in groups of similar abilities, either as a class, or as groups within a class. Knowing the mix of levels in a class or a group, or the strengths and weaknesses of an individual student can help a teacher provide the right kind of support that motivates each student to learn.
Using the results to inform your teaching
This brings up the point of differentiated teaching. A test can provide teachers with important information about each of their students. Who is strong in their use of the language? Who is weak in listening? Who may have difficulty with vocabulary, or grammar? Having the answers to these questions can help a teacher target their teaching to the needs of the class.
Kenna Bourke, co-author of Levels 5 and 6 of the new Primary series, Oxford Discover, offers some practical tips for making the most of your mixed ability Primary classroom.
About a hundred years ago, when I was six, my Belgian primary school teacher wanted me to crochet a poncho: ‘M’enfin! Un poncho, Kénna! C’est facile!’ Crochet! Crochet??? As I remember it, this involved manipulating a weird-looking needle, and some balls of wool: sky blue, navy blue, and white. That poncho haunts me to this day. My long-suffering mother crocheted it in the end. And I had to confess that I hadn’t crocheted it. And six-year-old life wasn’t good for a while.
Also at the age of six, I was promoted to top of the class in Flemish, above all the Belgian kids (dank u wel), and close to bottom in Math because 213 divided by 7 = (well, I have no idea and why does it matter?).
By the time I was twelve, studying at a school in England that shall remain nameless, I was put in the bottom set for English (this requires you to have read Dickens’s Christmas Carol and be able to recite it backwards), and the top set for French (this requires you to be able to say ‘M. et Mme. Dupont ont deux enfants’). I spoke French far better than my teacher, which turned out to be a major disadvantage. I also spent vast tracts of time wondering why lacrosse – a sport – wasn’t banned under the Dangerous Sports Act, and being quite good at … swimming.
Aren’t we all to some extent ‘mixed ability’? Does it matter?
It may or may not matter. The debate rages on. Some contend that all students should be streamed according to ability. But the fact is that people aren’t equally able, and it’s not always possible. As has been said endlessly, if you have a class of two students, you automatically have a mixed ability class. Utopia is a briefly entertaining fiction – we live in a mixed ability world, which we can choose to think of as something to be celebrated.
Imagine how boring it would it be if we all excelled at everything. There’d be little point in competition sports, or comedy shows, or concerts, or art, or literature … It wouldn’t really be worth cooking a great meal for friends because (yawn) everyone can do that. And don’t even think about solving a mathematical puzzle while you’re commuting to work, because we’re all equally good at it, and the person sitting to your left has probably already completed it.
Of course no two students are the same, but there you are, faced with your mixed ability class, and you can’t change that. So what do you do?
Move the benchmarking goalposts?
More often than not, we take a curriculum or set of standards and benchmark all students’ abilities against them, which is fine. But how about also benchmarking student achievement against that individual’s potential? Successful learning usually happens when you hit the tipping point between frustration and challenge. At university, I got bored and frustrated because French was too easy. At school, I was miserable and frustrated because Maths classes were difficult. Had I been pushed much harder in one direction and given more appropriate tasks in the other, I might have been more successful in both subjects.
Differentiate for success?
There’s a danger, also, of setting tasks that scream ‘advanced’, ‘normal’, or ‘remedial’. Not a good thing. It can result in making one student feel superior, another feel average, and the third feel stupid. Used tactfully, differentiated activities can build on each other. A below-level activity provides support and scaffolding for less confident students before they move to a task that is at- or on-level. The at-level task then provides support for students to deal with the greater challenge of an above-level task. Alternatively, you might differentiate learning by setting different tasks to different groups simultaneously so that all students are collaborating on discrete aspects of the whole, as in some L1 classrooms. No one really likes to stand out, except perhaps for the captain of that dreadful lacrosse team.
As my co-author on Oxford Discover, Kathleen Kampa, suggests in this video, there are some ingenious ways of giving all students the same task, yet letting them determine how to do that task at exactly their own level.
Motivate by focusing on what’s good and fun?
Call me a quitter, but I didn’t pursue crochet beyond the age of six, or Math beyond 15, though today, self-taught, I can do Math perfectly adequately. As adults, most of us very sensibly choose to do what we’re good at and what we actively enjoy. Too often, children aren’t given that freedom of choice.
We can create meaning in class and foster an atmosphere in which successful learning will take place by allowing students different ways to respond, and by giving them activities that appeal across a range of intelligences. Some of us are natural listeners; others love reading. Some of us wouldn’t dance or sing if our lives depended on it; others dance and sing till they drop. Some of us react to visual stimulus; others are oblivious to it. But we all do something well. Multimodality, in the form of video, audio, posters, spoken and written language, music and movement, is invaluable in helping students build 21st Century skills in an unthreatening, equalizing environment.
How? To put this idea in its most basic form, try, for example, to give:
classifying and problem-solving tasks to students who show logical or mathematical intelligence
physical, tactile, TPR-style tasks to kinesthetic learners
groupwork, classwork, and games to students who demonstrate interpersonal skills and intelligence
reading and writing tasks to learners whose verbal or linguistic intelligence is evident
and tasks centred around posters, pictures, and diagrams to children who show signs of visual or spatial intelligence.
As I write this on a January afternoon from my flat in New York City, it’s 11 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus-something horrifying Centigrade, and nothing would please me more than being able to crochet my own poncho to keep warm. But I refuse to get despondent. After all, aged 1, I was so mixed ability that I could drive a car! Who knows what else I might achieve if pushed?
Would you like practical tips on teaching mixed-ability classes and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.
When I was a schoolboy, research into the area of learning styles and individual differences was receiving significant attention. However, the idea of differentiated learning had not taken root in any significant or practical way in the classroom: its time had yet to come.
At school we were taught that “one size fitted all”; as if we all learned the same thing in the same way. This often meant that we weren’t taught according to how we learned best, but according to how our teacher learned best. In other words, the teacher’s teaching style was probably influenced by their own learning style. What was your experience at school?
(I hope I don’t sound too critical of my teachers. They worked hard and under difficult circumstances. After all, they had me in the classroom; not an easy situation.)
It is perfectly understandable that my teachers wanted to pass on what had successfully worked for them. After all, if it hadn’t worked, they wouldn’t have been the teacher!
So, they transferred the style that had worked for them as a pupil to the children they were now teaching. If a pupil’s learning style matched the teacher’s, the pupil had a better chance of being successful. If the two styles did not match, then the pupil had less chance of being successful.
In fact, is it possible to take it a step further? The teacher had moved through the education system successfully. The child whose learning style matched the teacher’s also probably matched the exam system! If you think about it, it was a self-sustaining circle that slowed down change and progress. Or it at least meant that some children were doomed to failure.
Perhaps I am being unfair in my analysis. What do you think?
Early in my career I was fortunate to work with a group of teachers who seemed to be gifted at teaching younger learners. Twenty years later I got the chance to collaborate with one of them again. How lucky do you get?
An area that interests us both is the learner as an individual. A question that challenges is how material and the teacher can adapt to the individuality of the children. Some of our answers are reflected in the material that we have produced.
Let’s look at the downside first. As an example, I can spend a number of lessons doing a little dramatic performance. The learners who like acting and group activities will enjoy themselves and probably learn a lot. The children who like to work individually on tasks will probably feel less engaged.
Simply put, there are differences between all learners. Differences in their likes and dislikes. Differences in what they are good at and what they are not quite so good at. Differences in what they like to learn and what doesn’t interest them. It can include learning styles and strategies, aptitude, gender age and culture.
But I need to teach all of the children. So what can I do about this? How can I take their differences into account?
Well, for a start I can try to be aware of their individuality and different learning styles. I can try to be aware that in any classroom there is going to be a range of different learner types.
This means that I need to make sure that I cover the same language in different ways – in a story, in a song, in a puzzle, in a game – so that the children have the chance to engage successfully with at least one of the activities. I need to check the material I am using to ensure that there is a range of activities that will appeal to different learner types. I can try to push as many of their learning “buttons” as I can.
What is differentiated learning? It is taking the differences in learning styles into account with how I teach and with the materials that I use. In an ideal classroom, all the children should be engaged in tasks that enable them to be successful and ensure they are learning.