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Assessment for the Language Classroom – Q&A Session

proofreading for English language students in EAPProfessor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He is a Past  President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). He has published on language assessment and in his most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides teachers with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests are teaching, learning, and assessment. Today, we share some of the questions and answers asked of Tony during his recent webinar, Assessment for the Language Classroom.

 

Should placement tests be given without students’ doing any preparation so that we can see their natural level in English?

Ideally, placement tests should not need any special preparation. The format and types of question on the test should be straightforward so that all students can understand what they need to do.

How should the feedback from progress tests be given? Should we give it individually or work with the whole class?

It’s great if you have time for individual feedback, but working with the whole class is much more efficient. Of course good feedback does not usually just involve the teacher talking to the class and explaining things, but encouraging students to show how they think. Having students working together and teaching each other can often help them to understand concepts better.

Besides proficiency exams, are there any tools to compare the students’ level to the CEFR? How I can evaluate them according to the CEFR? For example, a B2 student should be able to do this and that.

One of the aims of the CEFR is to help teachers and students to understand their level without using tests. Students can use the CEFR to judge their own level, to see what people can use languages for at different levels of ability and to evaluate other peoples’ performance. The European Language Portfolio (http://www.coe.int/en/web/portfolio) is a great place to start looking for ideas on using the CEFR in the classroom.

Practice tests can be practice in class, where students are asked to practice with new points of language…right?

I think this kind of test would be what I called a progress test. Progress tests give students extra practice with skills or knowledge taught in class as well as checking that they have understood and can apply those skills.

Ideas for testing lesson progress?

Course books and their teachers’ guides have a lot of good suggestions and materials you can use for assessment. There are also some good resource books available with ideas for teachers. I would (of course) recommend my own book, Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (published by Routledge) and (a bit more theoretical) Focus On Assessment by Eunice Jang, published by Oxford University Press.

Why does level B1 always take a longer time to teach? I notice from the books we use…there is B1 and B1+.

The six CEFR levels A1 to C2 can be divided up into smaller steps. In the CEFR there are ‘plus’ levels at A2+, B1+ and B2+. In some projects I have worked on we have found it useful to make smaller steps – such as A1.1, A1.2, A1.3. Generally, real improvements in your language ability take longer as you progress. Thinking just about vocabulary, the difference between someone who knows no words and someone who knows 100 words of a language is very big: the person who knows a few words can do many more things with the language than the person who knows none. But the difference between someone who knows 5,000 words and the person who knows 5,100 words is tiny.

Could you please tell us more about assessment?

I’d love to! At the moment I am working with some colleagues around Europe on a free online course for teachers. Our project is called TALE and you can follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TALEonlinetrainingcourse/

What CEFR aligned placement test would you recommend?

The best placement test is the one that works most effectively for your students. I’m happy to recommend the Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT), but whatever system you use, please keep a record of how often teachers and students report that a student seems to be in the wrong class. If you find one placement system is not very useful, do try to find a better one.

How reasonable is to place the keys to the tests in students books?

In the webinar I said that different tests have different purposes. If the test is for students to check their own knowledge, it would be strange not to provide the answers. If the test results are important and will be used to award grades or certificates, it would be crazy to give the students the answers!

Is cheating an issue with online placement tests?

Again, the answer is ‘it depends’. If cheating is likely to be a problem, security is needed. Online tests can be at least as secure as paper and pencil tests, but if it is a test that students can take at home, unsupervised, the opportunity to cheat obviously exists.

Could you please explain how adaptive comparative judgement tests work? Which students are to be compared?

Adaptive comparative judgement (ACJ) is a way of scoring performances on tests of writing and speaking. Traditionally, examiners use scales to judge the level of a piece of student work. For example, they read an essay, look at the scale and decide ‘I think this essay matches band 4 on the scale’.

ACJ involves a group of judges just comparing work produced by learners. Rather than giving scores on a predetermined scale, each judge looks at a pair of essays (or letters, or presentations etc.) and uses their professional judgement to decide which essay is the better of the two.

Each essay is then paired, and compared, with a different essay from another student. The process continues until each essay has been compared with several others. ACJ provides the technology for the rating of Speaking and Writing responses via multiple judgements. The results are very reliable and examiners generally find it easier to do than rating scales. Take a look at the website nomoremarking.com to learn more.

Besides the CEFR, what we can use to evaluate students in a more precise way?

See my answer to the last question for one interesting suggestion. A more traditional suggestion is working together with other teachers to agree on a rating scale to use with your students. Then have training sessions (where you compare the marks you each award to the same written texts or recordings of student work) to make sure you all understand and use the scale in the same way.

Can you suggest applications for correcting MCQ tests?

Online test resources like the ones at www.oxfordenglishtesting.com include automatic marking of tests. For making your own, one free online system I like is called Socrative.

How can placement tests be applied in everyday classrooms where they are split-level classes and students with disabilities learning together with others? What about people with some sort of disability/impairment (eg. dyslexia)

Sometimes there are good reasons to mix up learners of different levels within a class – and tests are not always the most suitable means of deciding which students should be in which class. Where learners have special needs, decisions about placement may involve professional judgement, taking into consideration the nature of their needs and the kinds of support available. In most circumstances placement should be seen as a provisional decision, if teachers and learners feel that one class is not suitable, moving to another class should be possible.

What about just giving a practice test before a major summative assessment at the end of a semester?

Yes, that seems a good idea. If students aren’t familiar with the test, they may perform poorly because they get confused by the instructions or misjudge the time available. Having a little practice is usually helpful.

If you missed Tony’s or any of our other PD webinars, why not explore our webinar library? We update our recordings regularly.


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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Three – Get ready for exam day

webinarpicStephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his final article in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In the first article in this series, I discussed some things to consider at the very beginning of an IELTS course, and then in article two I explored how to tackle some of the more problematic parts of the exam. Here, I will look at some strategies you can use at the end of your course to make sure your students are as prepared as possible for the exam day.

Mocks

It is important that students have at least one full mock before the exam day. Make sure you find some practice tests – such as the free ones which support IELTS Masterclass on the OUP website. When you set up the mock, it’s a good idea to imitate the exam conditions as fully as possible. This will help prepare students for the real thing, and it will give them a sense of how important timing is. Students need to realise that the Listening, Reading and Writing papers take 2 hours 40 minutes – with no breaks in between! When you run the full mock it is a good idea to use the answer papers like the ones that will be used in the exam. When a student is working quickly and misses a question out to come back to it later, it can be very easy to forget about this when completing the answer sheet. This can mean that all of the remaining questions have the wrong responses.

For the Speaking paper, as well as conducting mock tests, make sure students get to watch an example of somebody else taking the test. Outside of language exams, students rarely have a spoken test so many are understandably nervous about what the whole procedure entails.

On the day

Discuss what students should do on the day of the exam. Here’s what I advise my classes:

  • Get to the exam centre early – this gives people time to calm down, find their room, have a bite to eat and make sure they are not rushing due to traffic problems.
  • Use English before the exam – listening to a podcast, reading a book or having a conversation in English before the exam puts students in the right frame of mind.
  • Prepare for a long exam – As mentioned above, students will have to sit in the exam for over two and a half hours, so they should make sure they have had refreshments and visited the bathroom before the exam starts. Candidates can ask to leave the room to go to the bathroom, but this will take up valuable time.

At the exam centre

This may sound obvious, but make sure that students know where the exam centre is and how to get there. In many cities it is possible to sign up for the exam in a different place from where it actually takes place, so point this out to students if necessary.

Go through the regulations with regards to the identification that candidates need to provide, highlighting the fact that they must have the same identification that they provide when enrolling. To ensure a high standard of security, centres are required to take photographs of candidates and scan their fingerprints. Reassure students that all images are dealt with according to the local laws and that there are procedures in place for candidates who might be uncomfortable having their photograph taken in the presence of other people. If you or your students would like more information about the security procedures on the day it is best to check with your local centre. I’d suggest talking about these kinds of logistical things before the very last class, as this will give you and your students the chance to find out the answers to any difficult questions.

I hope you have found this three-part IELTS series useful, and I wish you and your students the best of luck in preparing for the test.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


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Strategies for teaching IELTS: Part Two – Overcoming the challenges

shutterstock_257788978Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He joins us on the blog today for his second in a series ‘Strategies for teaching IELTS’.

In my first article in this series, I looked at some of the things that are important to consider before the course starts in order to hit the ground running and develop some good momentum. In this article, I’ll explore how to help your students with some key areas, specifically lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given question commonly found in the Reading paper.

Lexis

There are two types of IELTS test; the Academic Test and General Training Test. 80% of candidates take the Academic Test and if this is the case for your students then lexis will hold the key to getting a good grade. If candidates are comfortable with academic-type language, even if they don’t understand every detail, it can make all the difference. Of course, there is so much language that could be deemed ‘academic type’ that it is impossible to teach every lexical item that could come up in an exam. There are, however, a number of strategies we can use to maximise the amount of time we have available:

  • Encourage students to use a lexical notebook. I have found that students who take a little bit of time to organise their lexis in this way improve their language very quickly.
  • Create a lexical wall in your classroom and add, or get your students to add, useful lexis from each class. Alternatives to this might include a blog, wiki or a notice board.
  • Focus on certain areas of language that are vital, for example conjunctions, lexis to describe trends (see Writing Part 1 below) and formal versus informal language.
  • Expose students to academic language outside the classroom. There are a number of free resources, for example from the BBC, that you can ask your students to use in their own time.

If your students are taking the General Training Test then the first three ideas from the list above are still vital for expanding their lexis and ensuring a better result.

Writing Part 1

There is no getting around it, but for most candidates (and teachers), this can be a very boring question. It can also be a challenge because a lot of students rarely have to write anything like this even in their own language, never mind doing it in English. It also demands that candidates can both identify important pieces of information, and write about them. Some useful strategies I have used for this question include:

  • Make the data relevant. Find raw data about the cities or countries where your students come from. A lot of countries will have the equivalent of the UK’s Office for National Statistics which will be relevant to your students.
  • Ask your students to carry out surveys with people they know to gather data, and then write about it.
  • Focus on the very specific language that your students will need. The main area is the language of describing trends and one thing I have found very useful is to show how one phrase can be used in two different ways. For example, if you introduce unemployment rose sharply you should also highlight how students could alternatively say there was a sharp rise in unemployment.
  • Expose students to good practice. I use the Daily Chart from The Economist magazine, which provides up-to-date and relevant graphs for students to describe.

Yes/No/Doesn’t say

From my experience, this is the question that causes the most problems for a number of reasons: it is an unusual question type; candidates can spend a lot of time trying to find information that isn’t in the text because they don’t trust themselves; the questions themselves are often purposefully misleading. There is no silver bullet for answering this type of question, but there are a few helpful hints that we can give.

  • Yes/No/Not given questions are usually looking for the writer’s opinion. True/False/Not given questions are usually looking for facts from the text.
  • The questions usually follow the same order in the text. This means if you have found the information for questions 7 and 9, the information for question 8 is between those two. If you can’t find the information then the answer is probably Not given.
  • If you don’t know the answer, guess Not given because you there is a good chance the reason you don’t know is because it isn’t in the text.
  • Look carefully at the question, especially for words like often, always, sometimes because these will sometimes make the difference between True/False and Not given.
  • Give students a text and ask them to write their own Yes/No/Not given questions. By going through the mechanics of writing this type of question, candidates often get an insight into how to answer them in the exam.
  • Ask students to underline the information in the text that they think provides the Yes/No answer. This will make feedback easier as well as helping you identify why your students are making mistakes.

I hope these tips prove to be helpful in preparing your students for the IELTS exam. Just focusing on these tricky areas will not be enough, but I have found that this is a good starting point, after which the rest becomes easier. In my next article, I’ll be looking at some strategies we can employ just before the exam.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


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Strategies for Teaching IELTS: Part One – Where to start?

 

continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He is now based in Curitiba in the south of Brazil where he writes a blog about bringing up a bilingual child at headoftheheard.com. This is the first article of a three-part IELTS series, exploring the basics of helping your students through their IELTS exam.

As with most things in life, the key to a successful IELTS course is in the preparation. If you have a clear idea of what you and your students need to do from the outset then you are far more likely to help your students achieve their goals than if you have no plan at all. Likewise, as the expression goes, first impressions last, so if you can impress your students in the first few classes, then they are more likely to trust you for the rest of the course.

It is important to have as much information at your disposal as possible before the course actually starts. This will help you to prepare properly and show your students that you really do know what you are talking about. I have added a number of questions for each of the points listed below, but the answers will often depend on your own context. Where possible, I have included some links which might help you to start finding your own answers.

Know the exam

If this is the first time your students have attempted the IELTS exam then they are likely to be very anxious about what it entails and what they will be required to do. Some questions students might have include: How many papers are there? How does the scoring system work? Which is the most difficult part of the exam? What’s the difference between the General exam and the Academic one?

As well as knowing the ins and outs of the exam, you will also need to know how students go about taking it. Questions they might have include: Where is the nearest exam centre? When are the exams being held? When is the registration deadline? How long does it take to get the results? How much does it cost?

The official IELTS site has some excellent information for both teachers and students, as does the British Council site.

Know your students

It isn’t always possible to find out a lot of information about your students until the course actually starts, so you will probably need to do some fact finding in the first few classes. As well as the usual information about the number of students in the class, their ages and backgrounds, some questions you might want to ask yourself include: Have they taken the exam before? What score do they need? Why are they taking the exam? Where do they hope to study after the exam? What do they hope to study?

Know your timetable

There is a lot to cover in an IELTS course, so make sure you have enough time to pack everything in. While your school might have its own natural rhythm, this might not fit with the dates of exams in your local centre. Questions to ask include: When are the exams? How long is the course? What do I need to focus on?

Find your local exam centre and get in touch to find out their exam dates and requirements.

Know your material

Whatever course you are running, you will need to be very familiar with the material you are using. With IELTS, this is even more key as time is such an issue. As well as a coursebook, you might need to use extra material, such as practice tests (which you can find here) or online material. Some questions to answer include: Is the material relevant to your students? Where can I find supplementary material? In my next article (on the blog next week), I’ll be sharing some of the free online material I use in my classes. Specifically, I’ll explore lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given questions commonly found in the reading paper.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here


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Get ready for the 2015 Cambridge English: First exam

Open water by mountain rangeSage Stevens, Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division of ELT at OUP, looks at the main changes to the 2015 specifications of the Cambridge English: First exams. Sage will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 23rd May.

As many of you will be aware, the specifications for Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) are changing in 2015. For those of you feeling somewhat at sea about just how these changes will impact on your teaching I will be hosting a webinar which will hopefully leave you feeling less ‘Lost at Sea’ and more ‘Fancy a swim?’. In other words, I hope to help navigate you through the changes so that you can prepare your students with confidence to sit these examinations in 2015 and beyond.

I am an Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division at OUP, but prior to this role I was a writing examiner for Cambridge ESOL CAE, FCE, BEC (Vantage) and others for a number of years.

I hope to share with you my experience in assessment and also my knowledge of Oxford’s new preparation and practice materials for the Cambridge English: First exam from 2015, which I have been actively involved in developing.

My webinar on the 23rd May will cover the following areas:

  • An overview of the main changes to the 2015 FCE exam. This will include looking at how the previously separate Reading and Use of English papers have been combined into one, without losing any of the integrity of the separate papers.
  • We will then focus in a bit more on changes to the Writing and Speaking papers. We will explore what teachers and candidates can expect with the new format, word count and rubric for the Writing paper, and we’ll look at the changes to interaction patterns and stimuli in the Speaking paper.
  • Throughout, I’ll be using examples of activities from the new editions of Cambridge English: First Masterclass and Result Student’s Books, and the Online Practice material that accompanies these courses – all designed to help you to prepare your students successfully for the tasks in the 2015 exam.

The webinar will be vibrant and informative. Participants will have the opportunity to put forward their views, participate in polling activities, and answer questions to ensure that the information is understood and clear. I look forward to meeting you!

To find out more about the changes to the Cambridge English: First exams, register for Sage’s webinar on 23rd May.