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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.


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A new vision for language assessment

When did you last have your eyes examined?

It’s recommended that adults with normal vision should have their eyes checked every couple of years. Understanding the health of the eyes and how to improve vision is a highly skilled task so is best done by a qualified optometrist. It is also easiest when the patient cooperates and is happy to sit patiently while, for example, trying to read the wall chart through different lenses.

With some patients (fidgety young children) this is a challenge, but the skilled optometrist finds different ways to relax them and to turn the exam into a child-friendly experience. Arriving at an effective prescription involves both the optometrist and the patient. The optometrist offers different choices, the patient honestly reports whether the picture becomes clearer or fuzzier. Between them they find the right tools (such as glasses or contact lenses) to improve the patient’s ability to see. The optometrist may also offer clinical advice on ways to protect or improve vision, or find problems that require specialist treatment.

Seeing language assessment differently

Effective language assessment should be more like an eye examination. Learners want to be able to communicate better. The well-trained teacher, like the optometrist, gives them carefully chosen tasks to perform, helps them find the right tools to communicate more effectively and gives advice on helpful study strategies. Finding the best next steps for learning is cooperative: it involves cooperation and trust between the teacher and learners. Certainly, learners are sometimes unwilling to cooperate, but the good teacher looks for ways to make learning the language and the assessment process more engaging and motivating.

One size doesn’t fit all

Unfortunately, the techniques we use for assessment are often too basic to do the job. We tend to think of assessment as something that happens at the end of a learning process. A check on whether the learners have learnt as much as we think they should. This is rather like an eye examination that puts patients in front of a wall chart, gives them a pair of glasses designed for someone with average visual acuity for their age group and simply tells them that they can see better, as well as, or worse than expected before sending them on their way. In fact, our techniques discourage cooperation and instead push learners to disguise any difficulties they may have with language learning. Rather than telling the teacher that they are struggling to understand, they’ll do what they can to pretend they have ‘20/20 vision’ to get the top grades. Some, looking at their poor results, may conclude that they can’t learn and give up all motivation to study languages.

A new vision

I think it’s time for us in the language teaching profession to look at assessment through a new set of lenses. It should be the starting point for finding out about our students, not the last step in the teaching cycle: filling in the grades before we close the book. Briefly, we need to assess learning earlier and more often, but using less intrusive methods: more observation and portfolios; fewer tests and quizzes. We need to think of assessment as an interactive process. If an answer is wrong, why is it wrong? What can be done to improve it? If it is right, why is it right? What does the learner understand that helped them to find the right answer? Can they help other learners to understand? We need to include learners more in the assessment process, experimenting with language to find out what works best: not trying to hide their difficulties.

Join me at the online conference on 1 or 2 March for more ideas on how to re-focus assessment on what really matters in the language classroom.


ELTOC

Tony Green
is running a webinar on this topic for OUP’s free English Language Teaching Online Conference in March 2019. Find out how you could be a part of this fantastic professional development opportunity by clicking here.


Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment and Professor in Language Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire, UK. He is the author of Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge), Language Functions Revisited and IELTS Washback in Context (both Cambridge University Press). He has served as President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA) and is an Expert Member of the European Association for Language Testing and Assessment (EALTA).

Professor Green has consulted and published widely on language assessment. He is Executive Editor of Assessment in Education as well as serving on the editorial boards of the journals Language Testing, Assessing Writing and Language Assessment Quarterly. His main research interests lie in the relationship between assessment, learning and teaching.


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25 ways of randomly placing students into pairs or groups

There are many benefits to getting students to work in pairs and groups. These range from giving students more speaking opportunities to creating better overall classroom dynamics.

There are three broad ways of grouping students. We can let the students choose who they wish to work with, the teacher can make the groups, or we can group them randomly. In this post, I’ll show you a wealth of way that you can organise your students randomly into pairs and groups.

The suggestions are organised into two sets. The first set of suggestions gets students to form a line which the teacher then divides up into pairs or groups of the desired size. The second set of suggestions gets students directly into the pairs or groups.

Form a line

This grouping method requires students to stand up and form a line, complying to the set rule. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. All except one of these require no extra preparation before class.

  1. When did you last eat ice cream? – Students get into a line ranked in order of when they last ate ice cream (pizza, chocolate, etc.). The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups as required.
  2. Something in your bag or pocket – Each student chooses and takes out a personal item that they have in their bag or pocket (encourage students to choose a more unusual item, not just a pen, keys, a coin, etc.). Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the name of the item they are holding. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  3. Birthdays – Students get into a line ranked in the order of their birthdays in the year. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  4. Words from the unit – The teacher selects words from the unit of the course book and writes each one on an individual piece of paper. The teacher gives one word to each student. Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the words. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  5. What’s your favourite food? – Students write their favourite food (animal, place, singer, etc.) on a piece of paper. They get into a line in alphabetical order of the word they wrote. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  6. What time did you go to bed last night? – Students get into a line ranked in order of the time that they went to bed last night. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  7. Alphabetical order – Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of their first/given name (or surname). The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, students could write their names backwards and get into alphabetical order of the reverse spelling of their names.
  8. The youngest person living in your home – Students get into a line ranked in order of the age of the youngest person who lives in their home. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  9. How long did it take you to get here today? – Students get into a line ranked in order of how much time it took them to get to school today. The teacher then divides them into pairs or groups.
  10. Where did you go on your last vacation? – Students get into a line ranked in alphabetical order of the name of the place they went on their last vacation. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, this could be about the city/place they would most like to visit.
  11. Last 2 digits of your phone number – Students get into a line ranked in order of the last two digits of their phone number. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, this could be done with the last two digits on a personal ID.
  12. What was the last thing you ate? – Students write the name of the last thing they ate on a piece of paper. Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the food they last ate. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  13. Number of letters in your name – Students get into a line based on the number of letters in their full name. Students should decide if they wish to omit any name they do not normally use or do not like. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  14. How much time did you spend away from home yesterday? – Students get into a line ranked in order of the amount of time they spend away from their home yesterday. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  15. Last word on the page – The teacher assigns a different page number of the course book to each student. The assignment of the pages could be done in several ways, but the easiest is probably to get students to count consecutively around the class, although not necessarily starting on page 1 (e.g., 33, 34, 35 etc.). Students look at the last word on their assigned page and get into alphabetical order of their words. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  16. Date on a coin – Each student takes out a coin and looks at the year written on it. Students get into a line ranked in order of the dates on their coins. Some students will probably have coins with the same year, in which case they could rank themselves by how old or new each coin looks. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.

Directly into pairs or groups

Most of these suggestions require some degree of preparation before class.

  1. Grab the string – To get students into pairs, the teacher has pieces of string (one piece for every two students). The teacher holds all the pieces of string in a bunch in the middle and every student chooses and holds the end of a piece of string. The teacher then lets go of the string and students get into pairs with the person holding the other end of their piece of string (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP).
  2. Lollipop sticks – The teacher has the name of each student written on an individual lollipop stick (or name card). The teacher chooses sticks at random to put students into pairs or group. Note: there are also free apps that can randomly group students in a similar way.
  3. What’s the category? – To get students into groups of 4, the teacher chooses words of 4 kinds of fruit, 4 kinds of colour, 4 kinds of animal, 4 kinds of furniture, etc., and writes each word on a separate piece of paper. Each student gets a word at random. Students get into groups with people who have the same category of word.
  4. Lengths of ribbon – The teacher has some pieces of ribbon cut into lengths (string or strips of reused paper also work). For example, if there are 12 students in the class and the teacher wants to make three groups of 4 students, there will be 4 short ribbons, 4 medium-length ribbons and 4 longer ribbons. The teacher holds all the ribbons so that students cannot see how long each ribbon is and gets each student to select one. Students get into groups with people with the same length of ribbon.
  5. Parts of a picture – The teacher has a number of different pictures and each is cut up into pieces (the number of pieces corresponds to the size of the groups required). Each student gets a piece of a picture at random. Students get into groups with people who have the other pieces of the same picture.
  6. Halves of sentences – To get students into pairs, the teacher chooses different sentences from the unit of the course book and writes each one on a strip of paper. Then each sentence is cut in half. Each student gets half of a sentence at random. Students get into pairs with the person with the corresponding half of the sentence.
  7. Letters – The teacher prepares pieces of paper each with the letter A, B, C, or D, etc. written on each one. The teacher gives one piece of paper to each student. Students get into groups with people with the same letter. This can also be done with coloured tokens or coloured pieces of paper.
  8. Team captains – The teacher selects some students to come to the front and be team captains. The number of team captains will depend on the required number of groups/teams. Each team captain then takes it in turns to choose team members. This can be done by team captains selecting who they want to be in their team or by randomly taking lollipop sticks or name cards (see 18).
  9. Count around the class – The teacher allocates a number to each student (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, etc.) around the class. When all students have a number, all the students with the number 1 get into a group; all the students with the number 2 get into a group, etc.

Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995 and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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Get the most out of group, peer, and self-assessment

Adult woman assessing another womanStacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some practical tips on getting your students to assess themselves, and each other.

We all need a fresh set of eyes sometimes. Successful writers or speakers often ask a peer for feedback. So, what is group, peer and self-assessment in the language classroom? For starters, it is not necessarily part of grading – we are not asking students to give each other a mark that will then count towards their grade. What it should involve is peer-to-peer communication about what is good about a piece of work and how it can be improved. It involves some learner training and it is important that assessment is not aimed at the individual, but at the work.

In this article, I’ll give examples of how group assessment might work for a presentation, how peer assessment might work for writing and how self-assessment might work in several contexts.

Preparing students to peer assess

Peer assessment may be new to students, so it is important to show them why it is a good idea, how it can benefit them and, most importantly, agree to some behavioural guidelines. Talk to your students about the benefits of peer assessment and get the class to draw up a list of guidelines. Some key points are below:

  • Peers can help us review our work so we can get a better grade.
  • Learning to help each other is a skill that will be used in a job.
  • Assessing a peer’s work can help us develop our own work by making us more aware of how a piece of writing or speaking affects the audience.

Example guidelines:

  • Comment on what is good.
  • Don’t make personal comments – just comment on the work.
  • Don’t judge. Be helpful.
  • Don’t just say something is bad or good. Say what is bad or good and why it’s bad or good.
  • Try to explain how it could be better.

Group assessment – group assesses group

As part of preparing for group presentations, set a date when all groups present to another group. You may need to send some groups out or if your classroom is suitable, just group them around the room. Give each member of the groups a sheet to fill in (see the example below) to help guide their comments. For a presentation, there are a number of different aspects that you might want groups to comment on. Create a feedback sheet that reflects what you have taught and what you will be grading on. The example below is fairly comprehensive and includes example student comments.

Please write a comment
Structure Is it clear?
Is there an introduction?
Is there a conclusion?
You need an introduction. I wasn’t sure what you were going to talk about. You could say what your conclusion is. The main body was clear.
Content Clear?
Engaging?
Did each person’s contribution connect with the others’?
Did each person contribute equally?
I really liked your topic. It was interesting. Maybe you could refer to each other’s section to make the presentation feel more connected. I think everyone spoke for the same amount of time.
Visuals Clear?
Did they add to the content?
The visuals were clear and made the presentation more interesting.
Body language & voice Confident?
Volume?
Eye contact?
Raul – very confident; good eye contact
Maria – I couldn’t hear you well; please speak more loudly Nida – maybe more eye contact; maybe use note cards instead of reading from a paper
Language & pronunciation Clear?
Key words pronounced clearly?
Mostly clear. Raul, I didn’t understand what you said about the water on the roads. Nida – you were reading, so it didn’t sound natural. Maybe practice in front of a mirror.
Answering questions How well did the group answer questions? You answered questions well. You have good knowledge of the topic.

Peer assesses peer

As part of the writing process, ask peers to assess each other’s written work. Sometimes students think that they can’t judge another’s work because they think their English isn’t good enough. To help students realise that their contribution can be valuable, make sure have clear guidelines for what to look for in each piece of writing. Tell them that their goal is not to find every grammar mistake, but to just comment from the reader’s perspective.

The example below (with example student comment) is based on a paragraph about a holiday.

Please write a comment
Structure Clear?
Topic sentence?
The structure is OK. You need a topic sentence. Your sentences are very short. You need to combine sentences 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Maybe you can use and and but.
Content Does it answer the question?
Does it make sense?
Why is it interesting?
You wrote about your holiday, but not about your feelings. You need to include your feelings. It makes sense. It is interesting because I have never been to Thailand.
Language Vocabulary
Grammar
Punctuation
Spelling
You used good words like hotel reception and flew. Grammar is good, but past of take is took. You need to capitalise the city. Spelling is good.
Presentation Indented paragraph handwriting You should indent the first sentence. Your handwriting is very clear and neat.

Self-assessment

Self-assessment is not only useful as part of the writing process, but can also help students see the progress they are making.

The following simple checklist is an example of how to raise a student’s awareness of what they should be including in writing. It also gives them guidance on how to go about editing their work. It is based on writing a summary and review of a story.

  • Have you got two paragraphs?
  • Is the first paragraph a summary of the plot of the story?
  • Is the second paragraph about your views on the story?
  • Did you give reasons for your opinions?
  • Do you have topic sentences?
  • Look at your grammar: did you use present tense?
  • Look at your vocabulary: did you use some of the words you learned to describe plot? Did you use words like, because and for example?

Students can also assess their speaking performance in pair and group work. This could help motivate students to speak in English when it is often more natural to use the L1. Make a simple checklist which highlights the goals for speaking in pairs or groups:

  • I spoke in English
  • I asked another person a question
  • If I didn’t understand, I asked for clarification
  • If someone wasn’t speaking, I asked them for their opinion
  • When I didn’t know what to say, I said it another way

Can-do statements are a great way for students to assess whether or not they have achieved language aims. They should be very specific; for example, they can be directly linked to a unit. Collectively, these will help students see the progress they have made over time.

I have finished unit X and I can:

  • Use the past tense to talk about what I did yesterday
  • Use words like, last week, yesterday, a month ago in a sentence
  • Ask someone questions about what they did last week/ last month/ last year
  • Understand someone telling a story about their problems last week on the train

This article first appeared in the March 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.