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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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Making Good Tests

Teacher and two students

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Larry Zwier shares some thoughts about his upcoming webinar, Making Good Tests. Larry is a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, the author of Inside Reading 2, and an Associate Director at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan, USA), where many of his duties involve making tests, administering them, and evaluating their effectiveness.

Students often talk about test anxiety. Some say they freeze up and can’t show what they really know because they’re “not good at taking tests.” Teachers may experience their own form of test anxiety. A teacher may feel completely confident in handling a classroom, presenting material, directing students in individual and group work, and so on, yet that same teacher may freeze up when assessment time rolls around. On February 6, I’ll present a webinar about getting past that freeze-up stage and writing good tests.

Specifically, I’ll make reference to using material from OUP’s series, Q: Skills for Success. I know that series intimately. I am one of the series consultants, and I was in on the discussions from the very start about what Q should be and how it should play in the classroom. Part of that “classroom role” aspect involves testing. How should we assess whether students are understanding the passages (reading or listening), picking up the vocabulary, and developing the language skills we practice? What feedback can we give students that will boost their performance in the future?

In the first part of the webinar, I’ll tell participants how to take advantage of testing materials already prepared for Q by Oxford University Press. These come in various packages – via CD and online – and I’ll explain how to get them and use them. In the second part of the webinar, I’ll approach a somewhat tougher topic: How to write good tests on your own.

Of course, testing is a huge topic and we could spend dozens of hours discussing it. I’m going to keep the webinar basic and practical. Issues I’ll address include:

  • What’s my testing goal (fluency/accuracy, syntax/lexis, main ideas/details, etc.)?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What format will work best in my classroom circumstances?
  • How can I identify good points to test in a reading / listening passage
  • I’m a teacher, not a cognitive scientist. How can I know whether a test is good?

I look forward to the webinar—a great chance for me to interact with colleagues from around the world.


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The pitfalls of exam preparation

Girl sat at desk writingAhead of his talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Zoltan Rezmuves looks at some of the tough choices that must be made when preparing students for exams.

What’s your main goal in teaching English? You’ll probably say something along the lines of “enabling students to communicate well in English” and perhaps also “developing students to be better people“. But have you ever had a group of students preparing for an examination? Then you know that your success or failure will be measured not by how well they can express themselves in real life, and not even by how well they fit into society. Where there is an important exam at the end of the process, you can only succeed if your students pass the exam. It’s that simple. But what does this mean in terms of classroom practice?

EXAM PREPARATION TO-DO LIST

1. You will have to cover the exam syllabus (the topics, the grammar and vocabulary, the skills and sub-skills), and make sure you don’t miss out anything.

2. You will have to familiarise your students with all the exam task types, and provide them with strategies to complete each type of task with maximum efficiency.

3. You will have to familiarise your students with the assessment criteria – so they know how to maximise their point scores, and how to avoid losing valuable points.

4. You will have to provide students with practice and rehearsal opportunities, so when they get to the real exam, it’s not their first time completing it.

The above is just a rough shortlist of tasks for you. Can you think of other things students will expect of you?

To continue with the same train of thought, what does this mean in terms of what you’re NOT going to do in the classroom?

EXAM PREPARATION NOT-GOING-TO-DO LIST

1. You are not going to cover language points that aren’t required in the exam. Students probably won’t mind. But don’t forget that often we only teach language points because we know they’re going to be tested. Throughout my career as a learner, there has always been a massive emphasis on irregular verbs. They are certainly useful, but the reason we spent so much time memorising long lists of them was merely because they were going to feature in our exams. Think about this – is there any language you’d skip or spend less time on if it wasn’t in the exam?

2. You are going to prioritise the task types that do occur in the exam over those that don’t – which means you’re probably going to reduce task type variety. You feel responsible for your students’ success, so you make sure their exposure to exam expectations is maximised. When it comes down to a choice between, say, an open personalised speaking task and another multiple-choice gap fill, perhaps you’re going to go for the gap fill… again.

3. In order to prepare your students well and to make sure you’re not leaving even your weakest student behind, you’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s needed for the exam. When pressed for time, you are not going to do too many activities which have no connection to the exam. This includes games, drama, discussion of controversial / intriguing (depending on your viewpoint) subjects, jokes and humour in general… can you continue this list? Exams are neutral, non-controversial, and let’s face it, pretty bland. Which is fine because tests are measurement tools, and it’s important to reduce unwanted extra factors, like emotional responses. But bear in mind that “pretty bland” is exactly the opposite of what language classes should be! How are you going to motivate students if you’re spending so much time doing stuff that isn’t motivating?

What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash, and it will be up to you to strike the right balance and to blend learning for real life and exam preparation.

Zoltan Rezmuves will be talking about Speaking and Writing in Exam Training: Blended Solutions at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 4b at 11:40am.


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Preparing for Standardized English Language Tests

Students sitting an examHow can you help your students prepare for standardized tests? Lawrence J. Zwier, author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT, offers his view.

Certain principles of test preparation are just common sense. For one thing, it is good to expose students to the form of a test before they take it. A practice run through any standardized test lessens the chance that structural surprises will skew the results of the test. This is especially true with items like the “reading-to-learn” questions on the Internet-based TOEFL (the iBT), whose format is not 4-option multiple choice. A test-taker who expects this different format won’t be so easily thrown off his or her pace. For another thing, preparation increases confidence, and a confident test-taker is more likely to show what he or she can really do.

If you are a teacher but NOT in a formal test-preparation school, can you have any role in helping students get ready for standardized tests? You definitely can. One avenue is through discrete-point preparation—targeting vocabulary and syntax in ways that mirror tasks on the IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, or whatever. First, get a test-prep guidebook for the appropriate test from one of the major publishers. Examine the sample items. Then look at your course syllabus and at the textbooks you use—especially your reading and grammar books.  Is it possible to give students exercises in a test-like format? For example, if you know some of your students will take TOEIC and your class is working with present perfect verbs, formulate some of your tasks as TOEIC-like items: “They have lived here _____ 2009,” followed by four possible options including “since”.

Another area in which any teacher can advance test-readiness is through good contextualized teaching. With the 2005 introduction of the iBT, standardized testing took a turn toward contextualization. If you go to toefl.org, the TOEFL-related site maintained by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), you’ll see a relatively global approach to test preparation. Students are advised to engage in real-life language-learning activities that have relevance to TOEFL preparation. Mix this contextual approach with the more discrete, local slant that you find in guides to the various tests. Widening the universe of test-prep activities can only help. The more connections students see between life and testing, the more smoothly they will move through training and testing into the jobs or academic admissions they aspire to.

Lawrence J. Zwier is Associate Director for Curriculum at the English Language Center, Michigan State University, USA. He is the author of numerous books about the TOEFL iBT and many ESL/EFL textbooks and is a frequent presenter at TESOL and other conferences.