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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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Child-friendly testing for young learners

Girl sat at computer smilingAhead of our webinar on the Oxford Young Learners Placement Test, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at how you can make testing a child-friendly experience for your young learners, and useful for you.

“Testing young learners? Really? Seriously? Why?”

That’s usually my reaction when I hear teachers talking about testing young learners.

“So, how do you decide what to teach them? How do you know how to teach them? Testing young learners gives you important information.”

As a friend said this to me I realised my problem was with the word “testing”. For me, testing is judging and labelling, not teaching. Of course, I have always gathered information about my learners and used it to help me teach better. Testing is one way to gather information, but testing young learners needs to be a friendly, positive experience for them. You need to consider their age, use bright colours and fun images, and give them a sense of achievement for having gone through the experience.

Making testing a positive experience

In her book, Teaching Young Language Learners, Annamaria Pinter writes: “In order to understand what children have learnt, teachers may need to use a variety of assessment methods.” Along with observation, portfolios, and project work, testing can be a valuable tool, providing teachers with information quickly and easily. It is important, however, for teachers to take out any of the stress and tension usually associated with testing and work to make it a positive and motivating part of the learning experience.

Understanding the range of abilities in your class

The test also needs to be useful. After all, you are, in essence, gathering information about your learners to help you teach better. Firstly, information from a test can help a teacher place learners in groups of similar abilities, either as a class, or as groups within a class. Knowing the mix of levels in a class or a group, or the strengths and weaknesses of an individual student can help a teacher provide the right kind of support that motivates each student to learn.

Using the results to inform your teaching

This brings up the point of differentiated teaching. A test can provide teachers with important information about each of their students. Who is strong in their use of the language? Who is weak in listening? Who may have difficulty with vocabulary, or grammar? Having the answers to these questions can help a teacher target their teaching to the needs of the class.

To find out how to make placement testing a fun and positive experience for your young learners, whilst also giving you accurate and reliable results to help you target your teaching, join our webinar entitled An introduction to the Oxford Young Learners Placement Test‘ on 9th June 2015.