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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. This blog accompanies his webinar on 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, I talk 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.

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


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.


The Importance of English Language Proficiency for College Teaching Assistants

teacher-holding-bookElaine Hirsch discusses the importance of English language proficiency for College Teaching Assistants.

Learning about how to derive the Black-Scholes formula in a 7:30 AM finance class is a challenging feat in itself; most students would rather not have to worry about understanding their teaching assistants’ English while they’re at it. Unfortunately, you’ve probably had similar experiences in classes taught by master’s degree candidate TAs, and incidences such as these form the basis for establishing guidelines regarding English language proficiency in higher education.

Language proficiency is commonly defined as a person’s ability to speak or perform in an acquired language. In order to evaluate an individual’s abilities, the Test of English as a Foreign Language was established by the Educational Testing Service and is administered worldwide to measure the ability of people to employ college-level English in terms of listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills.

However, the burden of applying this standard through admission guidelines falls to individual states and universities. For instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago requires applicants whose native languages aren’t English to demonstrate above minimum scores on either the TOEFL or the exam of the International English Language Testing System within two years of application.

Similarly, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “non-native English speaking graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants are encouraged to demonstrate oral English proficiency prior to arriving on campus” by meeting specific requirements on either the TOEFL or IELTS. The university also administers the Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit and an English proficiency interview on campus. Clearly, while the expectation is graduate students confirm language proficiency in advance, the university also evaluates them upon arrival.

Along with valid TOEFL or IELTS scores, the University of Buffalo requires all international students who have been awarded teaching assistantships to take the SPEAK test before class registration, or even in some cases prior to admission to a particular program. On the west coast, the University of California also requires either the TOEFL or IELTS.

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The changing immigration laws in the UK

UK Border signLaura Austin, an ELT Consultant for Oxford University Press, looks at how the changing immigration laws in the UK will affect foreign students hoping to live and work in the UK.

What’s happening?

Immigration laws are changing in the UK, making it more difficult for foreign students to get general student visas (GSVs). The government are aiming to cut visa numbers by 80,000.

Certain schools have ‘highly trusted sponsorship status’ (HTS) which means that they comply with tough criteria based on absences, drop outs etc. Having HTS gives schools a quota of places to fill in the school and the ability to issue a CAS. (A CAS is a unique reference number given to students on successfully signing up for a course – it allows students to apply for GSVs).

Previously schools could issue a CAS for a GSV without having HTS. This is no longer the case.

The system is toughening up and students are now required to hold a B2 level of English proficiency across all four skills.

This is a huge threat to the ELT industry in the UK. It is estimated that 40% of the ELT admissions in the UK come from GSVs.

Is it important?

Well, yes. Britain’s international and higher education sector is worth £10bn a year. If overseas agents can’t offer students the right package (i.e. combination of study and work options for all language levels) then we will become less competitive in the market and lose business to other countries.

Who will be affected?

Students, teachers, accommodation providers, shop keepers, the whole infrastructure of places like Brighton and Bournemouth which house large numbers of students. Private language schools who don’t achieve their HTS and also universities where students aren’t at a B2 level for all four skills.

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