Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog

Leave a comment

7 Steps to Assessing Skills in the Secondary Classroom

Take 21st Century Skills to the next level! Read our latest position paper.

Teecher giving feedback to teenagers

There have been numerous mentions of the importance of focusing on skills, such as building resilience, self-control, empathy, curiosity, love of learning, etc. in the EFL classroom. We are becoming more and more aware of what these are and how to help our students develop in these areas. However, as these skills are all subjective and seem completely intangible, as teachers we tend to refrain from even considering assessing these. After teaching a set of vocabulary or a grammar point, we are naturally used to evaluating improvement through different tests or tasks, but how do we assess the development of skills such as collaboration or self-control?

Why do we need to assess these?

Most education systems still put more emphasis on academic knowledge, assessed through tests by grades, so students might have the impression that this is all they need for their future. We also need to assess a variety of other skills in the EFL classroom to shed light on the importance of these for our students. This can demonstrate how being creative, co-operative or accepting helps students to live a more successful and happier life outside the classroom, beyond learning a language. It is also key to involve all the stakeholders, such as parents and colleagues, in this process. Let them know which skills you have been working on, the ones where your students shine and which ones they might need more support in other classes as well as in the home environment. Careful and on-going assessment of these skills, therefore, becomes equally paramount as assessing language knowledge and application.

The key in this assessment process is engaging the students themselves in helping them realise their own potential so that they can take responsibility for their improvement. Teacher assessment and guidance also plays a vital role in this developmental process. Above all, we need to empower students to be able to set learning goals for themselves, reflect and analyse their own behaviour and draw up action plans that suit their learning preferences. Here are a few tips on how this can be achieved.

How can we assess these skills?

We can help students improve in these areas by using the Assessment For Learning framework that “…is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide: where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.” (Assessment reform group (2002)


1. Brainstorm skills used for particular tasks

After setting a collaborative language task, ask students to brainstorm skills they might need for success by imagining the process. For example, a group project where students have to come up with a survey questionnaire, conduct the survey and present their findings through graphs. Students might suggest teamwork, openness towards different ideas, listening to each other, etc. If you can think of other important skills, add these to the list (e.g. creativity in coming up with good questions, ways in which they represent their findings, etc.) Students can assess themselves, or each other, with this check-list at the end of the task, but it could also become a reference list to refer to throughout the process. Make sure there are not more than five skills at this stage, to make self-reflection and peer-assessment manageable.

2. Reflect and Predict.

Ask students to identify their current emotional state, as this might play an important role in their ability to use specific skills. Follow this up with questions to predict their competence in each skill area, on a scale from 1 to 5 (1=not at all…5=very well). Students can use their answers as a quiet self-reflective task or the basis of group discussion.

“How do I feel right now?”

“How well will I be able to work with others? Why?” 

“How patient will I be with others? Why?”

“How creative will I be with ideas?”

Getting students to reflect and predict their use of such skills from time to time gives them more focus and helps them become more self-aware. It is important to encourage students to do this without any judgement, simply as a way to evaluate their current feelings and self-image.

3. Reflective questionnaires

The same questions as above can be used at the end of a task too as a way for students to reflect on how they used the particular skills retrospectively. This can then form the basis of a group discussion in which students share their experiences. Remind students that it is important that they offer their full attention to each other during the discussion without any judgement.

4. Setting weekly personal goals

Once students become acquainted with such self-reflective practice, you can ask them at the beginning of the week to set personal goals for themselves depending on the area they feel needs some improvement. To encourage students to set these goals, it is a good idea to share some of your own personal goals for the week first. For example, you can tell them ‘This week I aim to be more open and curious, rather than having concrete ideas about how things should turn out in my lessons.’ Modelling such behaviour can become the main drive for students to be able to set their own personal goals.

5. Using rubrics.

Design assessment rubrics for the main skills being used for self and peer-assessment. Create these as a whole group task, getting input from the students. This could also serve as an assessment tool for the teacher.

6. Peer-observation and skills assessment

As students are motivated and learn a lot through observing each other, you can set peer-observation and assessment tasks for particular tasks, say role-plays or group discussions. Put students in groups and ask them to agree on who the observer is going to be. It is key that there is a consensus on this. Then give the observer a checklist of the skills in focus, where they can make note of how they see the behaviour of their peers. The observer does not contribute to the group task, only observes the behaviour of their peers. At the end of the group task, the observer tells their peers about the things they noted.

7. End-of-term tutorials

At the end of the term, it is a good idea to have a few minutes individually with students and using the checklist and the questions mentioned in points 1,2 and 3 above to discuss how they see their development in the skills in focus. This shows students the importance of these skills and gives them a sense of security and self-assurance of ‘I matter’. It may be challenging to find the time to do this for most of us, teachers. Allocating two weeks for the tutorials with a specific time-window can give you a manageable time-frame, however. The tutorials can then be conducted either during lesson time while you set some free tasks – say watching a film in English – for students to do and/or a couple of hours in the afternoons after school, for which students sign up in ten-minute chat-slots with the teacher.


Are you interested in teaching with a course that uses a skills-based approach? You can find our new title, Oxford Discover Futures, here:

Find out more



Erika Osváth, MEd in Maths, DTEFLA, is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. Before becoming a freelance trainer in 2009, she worked for International House schools for 16 years in Eastern and Central Europe, where she worked as a YL co-ordinator, trainer on CELTA, LCCI,1-1, Business English, YL and VYL courses, and Director of Studies. She has extensive experience in teaching very young learners, young learners and teenagers.

Her main interests lie in these areas as well as making the best of technology in ELT. She regularly travels to different parts of Hungary and other parts of the world to teach demonstration lessons with local children, do workshops for teachers, and this is something she particularly enjoys doing as it allows her to delve into the human aspects of these experiences. Erika is co-author with Edmund Dudley of Mixed Ability Teaching (Into the Classroom series).


5 Activities for Peer Observation

Peer reviewMartyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

There are many reasons why peer observations with our teaching colleagues can be useful.

They often share your background and so understand your students, books, pressures, etc. They usually approach problems from the same practical perspective as you. They probably know you and so often understand the best way to approach you. And you can have developmental dialogues over time and so can explore ideas gradually.

Here are 5 observation activities that can be used with a colleague. They all follow a basic three-stage process of before, during and after the observation.

  1. Spot the difference

In this observation activity two colleagues focus on the similarities and differences in their teaching.

The teacher gives the observer an outline basic plan of their lesson. The observer writes notes on the plan on what they would be doing as a teacher at the different stages of the lesson.

The observer notes down the things that happen in the teaching process which don’t normally happen in their own lessons. These could be teaching behaviours, order of activities, methods of recording etc.

The teacher and the observer analyse the information using any of the following questions as appropriate:

  1. How could you categorise the differences?
  2. How do you account for the differences (reasons/rationales)?
  3. What does the observer do instead to achieve the same goal?
  4. What criteria would you use to decide which alternative to take?


  1. 5 reactions

In this observation activity two colleagues focus on five observer reactions to what happens in the classroom. – e.g. Something that surprised/inspired/amused/confused/intrigued me.

The colleagues decide on five observer reactions that they would like to focus on. The teacher gives the observer an outline basic plan of their lesson.

The observer notes down the things that happen in the lesson that cause the reactions they agreed on before the observation.

The teacher and the observer analyse the information using any of the following questions as appropriate:

  1. Which observer reactions does the teacher find unexpected? Why?
  2. Why did the observer have these reactions?
  3. What do these reactions tell you about the ways the you think about teaching?
  4. What follow up questions do you have for each other?


  1. Keep Two, Change Two

In this observation activity two colleagues identify two things they would do again, and two things they would do differently.

The teacher gives the observer an outline basic plan of their lesson.

The observer notes down 2 things that the teacher does (either teaching behaviours or activities) that they would do again in the same lesson, and two things that they would change. The teacher does the same (either making a quick note during the lesson or immediately afterwards.

The teacher and the observer analyse the information using any of the following questions as appropriate:

  1. Compare the selections. How do you account for any differences?
  2. What do you agree/disagree on? What does this tell you about your views on teaching and learning?
  3. Why would you make the changes? What differences would the changes make?
  4. What aspects of the context of the lesson influence your selections?


  1. Away from the plan

In this observation activity two colleagues explore how and why lessons move away from the lesson plan.

The teacher gives the observer a detailed plan of their lesson.

The observer notes down the places where things happen that are different to the plan, in terms of timings, teacher roles, order of activities, etc.

The teacher and the observer analyse the information using any of the following questions as appropriate:

  1. What categories can you put the changes into (e.g. time/management/activity order/ teacher roles/student activities, etc.)? Which categories feature most often, and why?
  2. What strategies did the teacher have for returning to the lesson?
  3. What criteria did the teacher use to decide to move away from the plan?
  4. What differences did the changes make? What does this tell you about strategies for effective and realistic lesson planning?


  1. Teacher Talk

In this observation activity two colleagues analyse what the teacher says in a lesson and why they say it.

The teacher and the observer work identify the types of talk that they think they use in a lesson, e.g. giving instructions, correcting errors, controlling behaviours, etc.

The observer makes notes on when the teacher talks, and as far as possible the types of talk according to their categories. If other categories are found, these are noted.

The teacher and the observer analyse the information using any of the following questions as appropriate:

  1. What surprises you about the data? Why does it surprise you? How do you account for the difference in your expectations?
  2. Are any categories more frequent than others? How do you account for this?
  3. How would you like to alter the incidence of teacher talk? More? Less? A change in focus?
  4. What dos this tell you about the quality of teacher talk and the quantity of teacher talk?


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?
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?
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
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 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.


Getting the most value out of peer assessment

Illustration of lots of eyes looking at man holding paper

Image courtesy of AJ Cann on Flickr

Is the value of peer assessment compromised if it is used as a class control for large classes? Charl Norloff, co-author of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 4, discusses how to maximize the value of peer assessment.

The value of any technique, including peer assessment, lies in having a clear idea of the purpose for using it and having realistic expectations about the outcomes you seek. Here are some factors to consider.

Structure the peer work carefully so that:

Students are using the target language

Is the class monolingual? If so, then the peer work, especially if it is being used as a control, needs to be very carefully structured so students can easily do it. Otherwise, it can have the opposite effect, leading to students speaking together in their native language, often off topic, and can actually contribute to a lack of control.

So, provide clear directions for what language you expect the students to use, including structures and vocabulary required to successfully complete the task.

The task is easy enough for the students to do with minimal supervision

The level of the students is another consideration in how the peer work is structured. The peer activity has to be such that it encourages use of the target language – in this case, English. If the task is too difficult or too open-ended for the level of the students then, again, it can lead to a situation where there is poor control.

So, make sure the task is at the appropriate level for your students, and give and practice models – including vocabulary and structures – in advance of the activity so students have the language they need. Peer tasks are often best following instruction and whole group practice or assignments.

There is a time limit

Especially where control is one of the purposes of peer work, a clear time limit is also a must. Otherwise, students waste time and can easily end up off task.

So, decide on the appropriate amount of time to complete the task, subtract five minutes and announce and post the end time. You can always add a few more minutes back in if students are clearly on task and still need more time to finish.

There is an end task with clear measurable outcomes, which can be assessed

When students work in pairs or groups, to ensure that the intended work is done, an end activity which holds the students accountable is always practical. That may be where the assessment piece comes in.

If the desired result of the peer work is to be assessment, then there need to be clear and measurable outcomes attached to the peer work in order for it serve the dual purpose of control and assessment.

Again, provide clear instructions about either a written or an oral assignment that will be due (and assessed, if that’s appropriate) at the end of the peer work. Try to keep the end task one of creating or producing something – a dialogue or brief speech presented to the whole class if you’re working on speaking or a piece of writing or analysis of writing that will be collected if writing is your focus. Avoid asking students to evaluate the quality of their partner’s work. Avoid asking yes/no questions which don’t require the use of the language. Focus rather on producing language or identifying aspects of the language rather than judging the language.

Here’s an example:

I’ve assigned, and my students have written, a paragraph giving reasons why studying a foreign language is an important part of their education. Prior to the peer work, we have worked on writing a good paragraph and have read a model and identified the topic sentence, supporting ideas, and conclusion.

My task will be for students to exchange paragraphs with a partner, read the partner’s paragraph, discuss anything that isn’t understood, then complete a worksheet on the paragraph identifying the various types of sentences.

The desired learning outcome in this example is for the students to be able to identify the structure of a good paragraph.

I will give the students five to ten minutes to read their partner’s paragraph and discuss it. Then, they will have another five to ten minutes to do the worksheet. The worksheet might ask the students to 1) find the topic sentence, write it on the worksheet and underline the topic once and the controlling idea twice, 2) list the supporting reasons, 3) circle transitions words, and 4) state whether the paragraph had a concluding sentence, and if so, whether it restated the ideas in the topic sentence or not.

The final step (and end task) would be to share the answers on the worksheet with the partner. Worksheets could be collected and be part of the overall assessment of the writing. A follow up assignment would be for students to reread their own paragraphs, using the same worksheet to analyze the paragraph, and then to revise it as needed based on the worksheet.

In any activity in a language class, including peer assessment, having control of the class is a must. If peer work is done in a way that keeps a class under control, and clear realistic outcomes are expected and measurable, then the value of the work is never compromised.

This is our last question for the Q authors. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Check out our Questions for Q authors playlist for previous answers, or see all of our Questions for Q authors articles.