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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.

register-for-webinar

 


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Mixed-ability teaching: Preparing for a class and managing the classroom

School children writingEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Ahead of his webinar on the subject, Ed joins us today to discuss mixed-ability teaching and setting learning goals for language learners of differing levels of skill. 

What do we mean by mixed-ability?

Mixed-ability classes are the norm, rather than the exception. Whether or not a class has been streamed according to language level, there are still likely to be big differences between individual learners in every group. I’ll be exploring some of these differences in the webinar.

What about differentiated learning?

Differentiating the learning activities in class is a good way to make language more accessible to learners at different levels – without losing a sense of togetherness.

Here are three ways that classroom activities can be differentiated:

Differentiating the input

For a reading comprehension activity, create two alternative versions of the text beside the original: one version adapted to make it more accessible, and another version made more challenging. Learners each tackle one of the three texts and then answer the same comprehension questions.

Differentiating the process

Alternatively, provide students with identical input (e.g. a set of questions) and then choose one of a number of options for finding out the answers (e.g. by reading a text, by doing individual research, or by completing a spoken information-gap activity.)

Differentiating the output

Open-ended questions can turn a narrow activity into something more accessible and flexible. Students all get the same prompt, but can respond in their own way. For a writing task, provide a ‘menu’ of prompt questions from which learners can choose the one they find most interesting. And why not set a time limit instead of a word limit? Then students write as much as they can within the allotted time.

How can we set appropriate learning goals?

A successful learning environment is one that is goal-oriented, but we should remember that setting ill-conceived or unrealistic goals is counter-productive. Achievable and desirable goals, on the other hand, lead to a healthy learning environment where students’ efforts are rewarded – triggering further motivation.

It’s not all about language – identifying personal goals and groups goals that are not related to language can have a beneficial effect on the group dynamic and individual achievement. Examples might be remembering to switch off phones in class, or finding a different partner to work with for every pairwork activity.

Grouping learners within lessons

When learners in mixed-ability groups are given activities to tackle in small groups and pairs there are more opportunities for personalized learning than in frontal teaching.

Pair work and group work also offer greater variety within activities, allowing individual students to work together with a number of different classmates in the same lesson and, over the course of a term, with everyone in the class.

There are many techniques for grouping learners and a number of different criteria that can be applied – I’ll be exploring some of these in the webinar.

Managing the mixed-ability classroom

Managing the classroom is the responsibility of the teacher – but that does not mean that students should be completely excluded from the process. In fact, there are many ways that we can involve students meaningfully in the day-to-day running of the classroom by finding a variety of appropriate, self-affirming and constructive roles for them to perform. I’ll be sharing some examples in the webinar.

If you’re interested in learning more about the subject and gaining practical ideas for managing mixed ability in the classroom, please register below for this free webinar, taking place on 19th and 21st January.

register-for-webinar


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Classroom speaking challenges: it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in

Solutions Speaking ChallengeErika Osvath, an experienced teacher and teacher-trainer, explores the third of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in’. 

As I am sitting at my desk thinking over the issue of how to get weaker students to join in, my thoughts keep returning to the same questions:

Who are the weaker students?

What makes them ‘weaker’?

How do I want them to “join in”?

I can’t seem to escape them. I could just list various activities that may encourage students to participate more actively in speaking activities, but I feel have to go deeper this time. And as a result, I find myself wondering about my own preconceptions as a teacher.

I expect a “weaker student” to say less, come up with fewer ideas, make more mistakes, and be more insecure. As a result, when they join in – if they ever do – they will be like this. Does this sound familiar to you? This is known as the Pygmalion effect, a psychological principle asserting that expectations decisively influence performance.

So what can we do to adjust our expectations and thus create situations where “weaker students” feel more comfortable contributing?

First of all – and this seems quite obvious – we can create a warmer atmosphere for all the students. Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously build a more relaxed climate for students that we have more favourable expectations of – we tend to be nicer to them both in terms of what we say and how we express it. We need to consciously try to do this for all the students in the class, regardless of ability, by using accepting words, true smiles, and demonstrating understanding and openness towards them.

Secondly, we tend to teach more material to students we consider more able. The key here, then, is to expect more of the students we perceive as “weaker”. So, when setting up a speaking activity, make it clear what you expect from all students. Tell students that they must offer a minimum of three ideas during the activity and use the past perfect at least once. Students will be able to live up to these challenges if you elicit some examples and note them down on the board before they start preparing their own ideas. Then, as you are monitoring their work during the preparation time and the speaking activity, make it clear that you expect them to do the task you had set. Of course, it is important not to be pushy or unrealistic, but make your expectations clear in a gentle and supportive manner.

However, the following two factors are the most important ones in influencing the way our students perform in all activities, including speaking. Firstly, when giving students the opportunity to respond to a question in class, we tend to call on the students we think of as “stronger ones” more often. A simple way that we can encourage less able students to join in speaking activities is to increase the number of opportunities they are given to respond – and if they need more time and support, shape the answers with them and give them longer to formulate their response.

Do not give up on them thinking that “they cannot do better than this anyway”, something that can often occur unconsciously. Instead, offer small anchors in constructing ideas and sentences together in front of the class, this way encouraging them to speak and contribute in small group activities as well.

One way you can ensure equal speaking opportunities in pair or group activities is by giving every student say, three slips of paper – signs of their contribution to the task. The aim of the speaking activity is to get rid of the paper, and students can put one card down only if they contributed at least one idea or sentence.

The second important factor is the quality of the feedback we give. If more is expected of a student, they are praised more. If the teacher thinks less of a student, they are more willing to accept low quality answers with the undertone of “not worth the time or effort, because they won’t know it anyway”. Our task is to reverse this process, making sure that we do expect higher quality responses from students who might need more support too.

All these four factors will greatly influence the way less able students perform. They will start raising their own challenges and demonstrate a greater willingness to join in with speaking activities and other activities too!


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#qskills – How can I teach a class where there is a huge gap in language proficiency among the students?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I teach a class where there is a huge gap in language proficiency among the students?

Colin Ward responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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Ready to write? Tips on preparing Kindergarten children to write

School children writingMargaret Whitfield, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips on preparing kindergarten children to write.

Have you ever thought about how complex writing is? It involves fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, control of the arm and shoulder, recognition of letter shapes, association of letter shapes and sounds, and so on. It’s a wonder anyone ever learns to write. The fact that children usually master it is proof of their amazing learning power. The early stages of learning to write involve developing concepts about writing as well as the basic skills that form the foundation of writing development.

Children begin to understand and to enjoy the idea of writing well before they are actually able to write. They see adults and older children writing and, as always, want to join in. Their experiences as they do so can influence both their progress and their later attitude to writing, so how can we ensure that they’re positive ones?

Encourage scribbling early mark-making

Make sure that opportunities for writing are widespread and varied, and that you praise all children’s efforts. When you refer to what children are doing as writing and ask about what they’ve written, you reinforce the idea that they’re doing the same thing as the ‘grown-ups’. You are valuing their effort. The marks may just be scribbles at this stage, but they’re a crucial stage on the path to recognizable writing.

Some everyday opportunities for writing:

  • writing labels for items in the classroom, e.g. toy food in a shop
  • writing a label on a picture they’ve painted or drawn
  • writing a message or a card for a family member

Be CREATIVE

Pencil control is a fundamental skill to master, but there are also many creative activities that will contribute to writing skills that don’t involve pencil and paper.

The following will all develop children’s motor skills, and parents may also like to do some of them at home:

  • Manual craftwork, e.g. manipulating small pieces of paper to make a collage picture
  • Making marks in sand with sticks or fingers
  • Covering a chalkboard with chalk and painting it with a wet paintbrush

In addition, using modelling clay helps to develop the muscles in the hand – get children squeezing, squashing, and rolling balls and sausage shapes.

Focus on letter SHAPES

For children to develop from early mark-making to recognizable letters, they need to recognize the letter shapes. (They also, of course, need to associate letters with sounds before they can use letters meaningfully, but that’s another topic.) Flashcards and posters with the letters are really useful for this, but they can be supplemented and combined with lots of other activities. For example:

  • Have children make the shapes with their bodies. Give two children a flashcard of letter ‘b’, for example, and ask them to work together to make the shape.
  • Match magnetic letters to flashcards.
  • Have children make the letters of their name with salt dough. They can decorate the letters when they’re baked.
  • Letter hunt: give a child a letter flashcard and ask them to find as many examples of that letter around the classroom or on a page of a storybook.
  • Use objects such as buttons or pipe cleaners to make the shape of a letter shown on the flashcard. Watch teacher trainer, Freia Layfield, show you how to make the most of this kind of activity in class and download a free photocopiable activity template.

Make writing part of role-play

Role-play is a key part of children’s play at this age, and it can provide great opportunities for meaningful writing activities. If you leave clipboards with pencils around the classroom in different play areas, children can be encouraged to build writing into their play.

Here are some ideas for combining role-play and writing:

  • Shopping: write a shopping list
  • Firefighters: write the address of the fire
  • Doctors: write a prescription for some medicine or some notes about the patient’s condition
  • Superheroes: write a secret message to another superhero and hide it for them to find
  • Traffic cops: write parking tickets for scooters left in the wrong place – or even speeding tickets!

And finally, be patient

Different children progress at different rates. A child may, for example, have less developed fine motor skills but a good understanding of sound–letter correspondence. Try not to ‘correct’ children’s writing too much and remember to praise their efforts; they will be encouraged to write more and so get the practice they need to progress.

Would you like more practical tips on getting kindergarten children to read and write? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for the free webinar on how to get kindergarten children writing on 22 January 2014.