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Assessment for the Language Classroom – What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_271564088Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. Today, he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar Assessment for the Language Classroom.

What’s on the menu?

If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.

“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”

Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.

Assessment ‘bread and butter’

The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.

‘Make or break’ testing

The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.

Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?

“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”

When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).

Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.

Getting the right skills

Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.

In the webinar on 16 and 17 February, I’ll be talking about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively. Please feel free to ask Anthony questions in the comments below.

webinar_register3

References:
Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.


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Discover the NEW International Express Tests and Teacher’s Guides

Students Sitting at Desks and WritingBruce Wade, Managing Editor of International Express, introduces his upcoming webinar on 11th September about the new International Express Tests and Teacher’s Guides.

The new International Express launched earlier this year, and now, plenty of extra resources to support the course are available for free on Oxford Teachers’ Club.  In this webinar, I’ll be exploring how the new Teacher’s Guides can help you quickly plan your lessons, and I’ll show you around the new tests and Student Progress Report, which help you to regularly and quickly check your students’ performance.

Plan your lessons in a flash

International Express comes with extensive extra resources including photocopiable activities, videos for every unit, and worksheets to support each video – so you won’t be short of material, but how do you make the best use of it all?  We’ve developed Teacher’s Guides for every level, which give a clear, one-page overview of the course, meaning that you can see all the syllabus items, target language and skills, and resources in one go. I’ll be exploring how you can use these to plan your lessons quickly and easily.

Regularly check students’ progress

Tests are an important part of every course, and International Express tests provide comprehensive coverage of all the language in the Student’s Book.  Most test items are written as A‒B exchanges to reflect the communicative nature of the course.   There is a separate test for each section so teachers can test their students after completing a section, or a unit.  I’ll explain the different ways you can use these with your class, and we’ll look at how you can analyse the results to make direct comparisons of your students’ performance across sections, and whole units.

Analyse students’ performance

We developed the unique Student Progress Report to help you measure students’ performance unit-by-unit, and across different skills.  I’ll explain how you can use this tool to see how a student is performing across the four sections of a unit, and we’ll look at how you can customise it, for example, by drawing different types of graphs, or by adding comments on your students’ performance.

I look forward to helping you making the most of all of these resources on 11th September.  In the meantime, you can take a look at them on Oxford Teachers’ Club – you just need to sign in with your usual log in details.


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Bring your ELT coursebook to life!

Students with a textbook in the parkKolos Esztergályos, an Oxford ELT Consultant based in Hungary, gives his tips for how to breathe new life into your ELT coursebooks.

Most teachers would agree that no matter how attractive an ELT coursebook might look, its real strengths and hidden weaknesses will unfold only in action, that is, in actual classroom use. And then, it’s not long before teachers start saying things like “Oh, that text didn’t go down particularly well with my students” or “My group couldn’t care less about pop stars”. With the new academic year looming ahead, it looks like a good time to start thinking about your new classes, your present coursebook, and how to match the two by tweaking some elements to your and your students’ tastes.

Generation gap 1: You know the movie star? Chances are, your students won’t

You have a charming Pierce Brosnan smiling at you next to a reading text about James Bond movies. You might find that your students will have a different idea of a heart-throb. With today’s online resources it’s only a matter of a few clicks to revive the personality and put them into a present-day context through Wikipedia or IMDb facts and links. Start off with a topical bit of information or a recent photograph that can spark a discussion about a life event, a controversial topic, or the social issues a celebrity is likely to stand up for. With less advanced groups you can use the photos only: in pairs, one student describes the person in the photo from years ago, the other will do the same with a more recent one. Later, they will show their pictures to each other and find out that they have been describing the same person – with a lot of differences!

There are many various possibilities, but the main thing is to find a way to relate the person to your students’ present reality.

Generation gap 2: You can’t relate to a topic

You’ve never followed the Premier League events. You can’t see how designer brands make a difference. Your worst idea of a holiday is couchsurfing.

It’s very likely that your students will be experts on the topic, so the best thing is to own up. Argue that you don’t see why brands / clothes / having the latest gadgets / etc. are important. You’re sure to instigate a wild classroom debate, especially with the 14-18 age group.

Tom, Dick and Harry

By the very nature of coursebooks, exercises are often riddled with general, “faceless” names. You might want to try and add a little flavour by replacing these with the students in your group. “What time does Ivan get up?” will have a totally new interpretation if Ivan is the regular latecomer in your group! “What would Mr (eg. history teacher) say if he found out that you had copied your homework?” will also shed a new light on typical questions. But even without direct references, any mechanical exercise will benefit from turning fictitious names into flesh-and-blood people. Of course, it is your responsibility to avoid sensitive issues and to maintain the integrity of all people involved.

 “C, final answer”

Multiple choice tasks are prevalent in any ELT material, obviously, for good reasons. But don’t forget that any classic MC task can be turned into a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ quiz item to involve groups of students and to increase motivation. There are some great online tools to create your own quiz show. You will have to introduce “cat mode” (ie. multiple lives) if you want to play it with more students or groups of students simultaneously; all students or groups will mark an answer, but those who get it wrong can also play on with a life lost, or, alternatively, by earning no points/”money” for that round. Even more engaging if played with toy money, where culturally acceptable.

Video killed the radio star

ELT materials today tend to cater for the fact that students are brought up in a multi-sensory environment. As a result, these materials make use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic channels to accommodate different learner types and to make content more memorable. This, in turn, allows us to transform material by “switching off” channels to leave more to the imagination. If you have a listening text, first use the transcript only to let students make guesses about the age, sex, occupation, etc. of the characters. If you have a video, use the audio only and get students to make the same inferences. This may sound time-consuming but will help students focus on the linguistic material to make judgements and to work with the text more intensively.

My test, my learning

It is indeed very appealing and time-saving to print off a ready-made test, but you can make students part of the whole learning process by involving them in test design. Use your review lesson to get groups of learners to write tasks for an ideal test they would be happy to take. This will make them go through the material covered and they will be likely to use the task types found in the coursebook. Collate and correct the tasks, go through some of the items together. The remainder will give you the basis of a test, ideally to be used as it is. When compiling the actual test, give students credit for an extra morale booster. I’ve found that this works especially well with students who need extra support.

Naturally, this is a list of recommendations only, but I hope that these ideas will give you enough inspiration to look forward to a new academic year!


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Can informal testing methods be as beneficial as formal ones?

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make testing fun and your students enthusiastic.

Informal methods of testing and assessment are as useful as standardized tests. They are typically based on every day classroom activities to measure the progress of students toward the goals and objectives where students are not aware of being monitored and assessed. These activities are monitored and recorded by the teacher as an observer. They allow teachers to keep track of the progress of their students regularly. Portfolios are great ways of monitoring and assessing the students throughout the entire school year.

Can tests be fun? In order to avoid staleness it would be good to allow your students to do group tests from time to time. They will have to help one another and work together for a group grade. Besides the common benefits tests usually provide, this kind of testing will help your students develop collaboration skills.

Have you ever thought of how to make students projects more than just a decoration on the classroom walls? Have you ever tried a group quiz based on questions extracted from your students’ projects? I will describe something I usually do when I ask them to do a group project outside the classroom. The aim is to test reading and speaking skills and monitor and assess some social skills.

The first step is to be done by the teacher – to display students’ posters all around the classroom and prepare questions in advance. Students are divided into groups of five. Each group is given 15 questions (three per each member on a separate piece of paper). Their first task is to move around the classroom (from one poster to another) to read (scan the text) and find the answers to their questions in 10 minutes. Once they have finished this, they go back to their groups to put their answers together and write them in the order of the questions (1 – 15) that are given on a new piece of paper. Then groups switch papers with their answers for checking, marking and correction – group 2 gets the answers from group 1, group 3 from group 2, and so on until group 1 gets the answers from the last group. Now the quiz can start. Teacher reads the questions and answers aloud, students check, mark and correct. Each correct answer earns one point for the group. It is advisable to use PowerPoint or another kind of visual support at this stage of the class. All the groups are rewarded according to the results they have scored. Teacher will decide how – by marking, giving written certificates, flags indicating their achievements etc. – depending on the age group s/he is teaching and on the level of the task students have to complete. Continue reading


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How to make your students enthusiastic test-takers

Happy teenage English studentsTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make your students enthusiastic test-takers.

Tests are usually students’ least favourite and most stressful school activity. But, there are some ways to make our learners feel more relaxed and enthusiastic about dealing with tests.

To begin with, think about yourselves as test–makers. Do you think a good test–maker  makes a good test–taker? I do.

During my first years of teaching, as a young and slightly overconfident teacher, I naively believed I was a very good test–maker. Then, in a very short time I sensed my first bitter flavours of the reality of testing results. Every testing time was another disappointment both for me and my students – more than half of them scored badly. In spite of that and completely unaware of the fact I should have changed something, I still believed my tests were great and blamed my students for the bad results. Fortunately, I met a more experienced English teacher who was willing to help – to ‘attack’ my tests before they were given to my students.

While doing the tests I had created, she kept asking me questions like “What am I supposed to do here? What does this actually mean? Do you think kids will ever use something like this? What do you want to test here?” She also complained about the time – “Thirty minutes have passed and I have completed only half of the tasks”or the context itself – “This sounds really stupid”etc.  I must say this was a major blow to my overconfidence as a teacher. I suddenly realized my basic errors and became more aware of the close interrelation between test-makers and test-takers.

I haven’t stopped searching for better testing techniques ever since then and have developed some strategies. Welcome to my ‘testing database’ and feel free to update it!

How about making testing time a regular routine by establishing a testing timetable in advance? Why not tell your students they are going to have a test after each unit or after every two or three units?  If they know this, they will be able to plan their revision at home in time.

Classroom preparation activities? Plan them well in advance and in the way that will make your students familiar with what you are going to test and the form of the test itself.

Make sure the instructions are clear. Be specific about the requirements and don’t forget to give an example. Students sometimes fail to complete their tasks not because they do not know English, but because they do not understand what they are expected to do. Have a look at the following reading task:

Insert the phrases into the appropriate gaps.

 a) a part time job
b) baby sitters
c) deliver newspapers
d) 60% of students
e) in the morning
f) 20% of students
g) in the evening
h) They don’t need
i) as shop assistants
j) they want

 In Britain, children can have ____________ (1) when they’re 13. Lots of teenagers work in the evenings or at weekends ____________ (2), or in restaurants and fast food places. Others ____________ (3) before they go to school ____________ (4).  Girls often find work as ____________ (5). In one school near London, ____________ (6) said that they had a part time job. It’s more than a half. Most say ____________ (7) the money to buy clothes and CDs. ____________ (8) the money for their families.

Do you think the instructions are good? Is it clear what students have to insert? The letters preceding the phrases or the phrases in full? There are eight gaps and ten phrases! Continue reading