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.
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.