28/11/2020

Introducing Formative Assessment

Listening to the so-called experts on the radio arguing that exams must take place in England next summer despite all the disruptions to education caused by Covid has made me reflect on how tied we are to a traditional and rigid testing system which these ‘experts’ tell us is ‘the single best way to evaluate students’ knowledge’. I think it is time to reappraise formative assessment and consider its wider and long-term benefits. 

It is worthwhile reviewing why we assess students beyond the need of Universities to see grades on which to base their decision to allow a student to study at their esteemed educational establishment. We assess students because as teachers an important part of our job is to monitor our students’ progress and to diagnose how we can help them overcome difficulties as well as develop their learning skills and all those other important life skills that are fostered alongside language like communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. 

We want to be able to point out evidence of their progress to students and in doing so increase their motivation. There is nothing more motivating than that sense of success.

We also need to know how successful our teaching is. Have we managed to find the right ways to present and practise key language items that ensure students not only understand it but can use it appropriately and with ease later? This is not straightforward and we need indications of where we have been less successful, so we can return to areas of language if necessary probably in different ways. And we need indications of what we have done well, so we can do it again!

And, of course, we need to provide something tangible in terms of information for parents, colleagues and school authorities

Traditional approaches to assessment are based on assessment of what students have learnt and is mostly typified by tests and examinations taken at the end of a period of learning e.g. end of unit tests, end of year exams. I want to make it clear that I believe that exams serve a purpose, and I am not arguing to get rid of them at all. For one thing, they give students a sense of direction, something to aim for:

Everyone can experience feelings of resolve and a commitment to think more and to dare more … and of being poised to learn and ready to take the next step.

Martin V. Covington, The Will to Learn, Cambridge University Press


As students work their way through a suite of exams they can feel a clear sense of progress over an extended period of time. e.g.’ ‘ was at A2 a couple of years ago and now look, I’ve passed a B2 exam!!’ And with that a sense of completion

Very importantly, established international exams like those provided by Cambridge Assessment are incredibly well researched by experts in their field, reliable and valid as well as recognised the world over. This give students an even greater sense of accomplishment when they get their certificates. 

And exams do provide clear numerical information for stake holders, which is needed for record keeping and analysis.


BUT….

Traditional testing doesn’t always reflect 21st Century teaching methodology, which appreciates and accommodates multiple learner differences, like the fact that we don’t always work at the same speed and a timed exam may not give every student enough time to do the best they could.

Unfortunately, in my personal experience I have witnessed how teaching becomes test-driven and creativity is pushed out, with teachers spending the majority of their time dishing out practice tests to students and not giving enough attention to actual teaching. This could be in part the result of teachers being judged primarily on test results rather than the quality of their teaching.

And there is that awful situation of students judging class activities a waste of time if they can’t see a direct link to the exam.  Leaners only want to study ‘for’ the test because that has become the be all and end all of their learning experience.


This focus on just ‘passing’ the exam can lead to a culture of rote learning, which is dangerous as what is learnt this way is quickly forgotten.


You may enjoy this ‘slightly cynical’ definition of a grade:

A grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased judge to the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.

Dressel, 1983


One of the major issues for me is that if teachers overly rely on the information they get about students’ progress from end of year exams, that information has come too late for them to take any remedial action to help those students in need.


This is where formative assessment comes in, as it happens throughout the learning process and students are encouraged to take an active role and develop skills and confidence to continue learning beyond school.


These are some simple tools to use in any lesson with any class (even lower Primary or University level students). Students use these to indicate how they are managing / progressing during or just after a lesson (or perhaps at the end of the week). They are all techniques that encourage metacognition – the ability of students to think about their learning. How are they learning? What helps them to remember? What are they confused about? etc.


Signs – these can be as simple as a red and green card which they put in the middle of their table (individually or as a group), which indicate whether they are happy for you to proceed (green) or they want you to stop (red) and help them more.


KWL – At the start of a lesson or series on lessons e.g. a unit of a course book (this could even be a single text), students brainstorm what they know of the key topic they will cover. This could be, for example, volcanoes or the passive voice. After sharing this information, they consider what they want to know and document this. As they work through the portion of material they register when they have found answers to their questions and at the end consider what they have learnt.


Mind Maps – are a great example of graphic organiser of what you know.  Again, students can start filling in the mind map in groups before embarking on something new and add words / information as they progress. These can be displayed on the class walls while being used and recorded (e.g. photographed on their mobile phones) for students to use a reference.

321 – at the end of a lesson or unit, students record 3 things they learnt, 2 things they found interesting and one question they still have. This can be shared as class or given to the teacher anonymously, especially at first when they may be reluctant to share with the whole class. This is a habit that needs to be developed as it flies in the face of traditional competitive learning.


If you are teaching online there are tools inbuilt to may platforms that can replace the four techniques mentioned above. For example, students can be asked to use the polling tool to indicate how they are managing with the material. Or they can use the chat box (which can be set to be read only by the teacher) to say if they are confused or need extra help.


Most course books have regular review sections after a few units, which many teachers set as a test. But these can be used for students to reflect on their own progress and gaps in their knowledge. This will encourage them to become more independent and take steps themselves to rectify these gaps or to seek help.

Journals/ letters – Students can be introduced to ways of verbalising their learning journey by keeping a personal journal or writing regular letters / notes / emails to you. This makes them really think about what they are learning and how and hopefully identify their success and where they need extra support.

Many books now begin a unit with a list of what you Can Do by the end of the unit. Try getting students to refer to this on their own and gauge whether they can. Maybe using %s.


Something I have found very successful over the years is arranging regular short individual tutorials / meetings with students to discuss how they are doing, where I can make suggestions of personalised work that can help / be of interest to them and allow them to ask questions. I was pleasantly surprised by how my lower secondary students in Greece responded with maturity and openness to this opportunity to focus on how and what they were learning. And these are possible even if you are having to teach online.


Formative assessment is a collaborative way that teachers can work with students to highlight day to day progress as well as problems in the learning process to facilitate success for all.


Remember…


Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Albert Einstein 



10/06/2019

Projects – how and why to use them with students



Where projects go wrong

Many teachers will attempt projects with their classes but give up on them because of the students’ inability to work as a team, an over-reliance on the teacher: and often due to bad time management and conflict, a resulting poor product and a pervasive feeling of time wasted, which motivates no one to go through the process again.

In addition, with access to the internet even young children find it easy to merely cut and paste some information and visuals they find onto a sheet of paper and present this as a project. It is not. These so-called projects have little or no value and encourage laziness and ultimately an acceptance of plagiarism that will do students no good whatsoever when they enter higher education.



So, what defines a project and what gives it value in the learning of languages?

Projects are student-generated and led. They are topic-based e.g. food in my country; rock bands; the world in 2080. They involve research and lead to a final product. Students are encouraged to work as teams and make decisions for themselves, with the teacher acting as monitor and consultant. There is always a final tangible product, which is individual and can be surprising and extremely satisfying to students and teachers alike.

Products can include:

·         posters and wall displays, which can be presented and/or exhibited to the entire school. They can also be presented to the class in a Power Point or similar format

·         a book or magazine based on a topic that they are passionate about and designed to express their individuality and artistic talents. This could be printed or shared on an online platform

·         a (recorded) radio programme, for example a current affairs programme with different segments on topics of interest, done seriously or with humour

·         a video, which could be drama, documentary, interview or news. The video would have added layers to the radio as costumes, backgrounds and props would have to be sourced or created (there are many apps for making short videos e.g. iMovie, educreation and AdobeVoice)

·         a song, poem or rap

·         a web site or blog

·         an advert or commercial created for the radio, TV, magazine or online

In fact, the product is anything that uses the medium of language and can include any artistic, creative, individualised content.

Because students are allowed to make their own choices and are free to employ thei talents and explore their interests, they are often the only way that our English language lessons can offer opportunities for students to use, what according to Bloom’ taxonomy are, the higher order thinking skills: analysis, evaluation and creativity. By engaging in the creation of projects students can prove to themselves that they can use English for a purpose and use and develop many other skills too.



What skills are applied when working on projects?

Engaging in projects allows students to practise not only language skills, but also intellectual skills, physical/motor skills, social and life skills

Life skills are a hot topic these days. According to the Cambridge University Press classification they are:

·         Creativity and innovation

·         Critical thinking and problem solving

·         Computer literacy

·         Learning to learn

·         Communication

·         Collaboration

·         Emotional skills

·         Social responsibilities



Projects allow for a free range of creativity and innovation, as students can chose the form and content of the final product, but importantly are motivated to play with language with a purpose. They need to mine their linguistic resources and find words and combinations of words that will fulfil the needs of the project.

Critical thinking and problem solving are employed to map out the project in terms of participants, time and resources and planning how they will achieve the objectives they set themselves.

Research is often done using computers and students may well use a digital medium to present their project.

As students face problems while creating their project, they may be helped by the teacher or their team mates to find solutions, thus engaging in the process of learning to learn.

Working well as a team demands good communication. If students are still at a lower English language level, the discussions they have can, of course, be in L1. That’s fine. They are still developing communication skills per se.

In an age when we are told that young people are becoming increasing more isolated and depend on social media and phones to communicate, collaboration is probably the most important skill, in my opinion, to focus on. Working closely, listening to others, accepting other view points, making concessions, finding compromises that everyone can be happy with – these are all crucial to facing an adult world.

Before embarking on project work, I think it’s vital to discuss with students why group work is important, how the group work is undertaken and agree norms and practices, such as, who does what, how much each student will do and what is fair. Sometimes doing some research may seem like an easy task to the student writing up a long text or creating a design, so it is good to clarify the value of each student’s contribution.

It could also be helpful to teach phrases like ‘Why don’t I do XX’, ‘Maybe you can do XX’, ‘I volunteer to XX’ and build on these, as collaborative work is increased in the classroom.

I don’t think collaboration comes very easily to us, especially when school environments stress working independently, often competitively, so it is worth spending time discussing its value in the world and how students can use it in class.

Understanding one’s own emotions and being sensitive to others are key skills and there will be ample opportunities during project work to practice these and well worth discussing this prior to starting.

Taking responsibility for the way we live and what we do, especially in light of the focus on the environment at the moment, is also a good topic to explore with students. I start with just stressing the importance of being responsible for all the material they have (no moaning, if parts of their project are lost because they leave it lying around in a classroom) and tidying away craft materials and rubbish at the end of a lesson. Also, being aware of how others are doing and suggesting ways of helping; being a supportive member of your team – this something else I discuss.

Focussing on all these life skills has great value in the greater education of students but also supports their language development.



Why else do projects?

Projects cater for the diverse range of students we may find in any class, as they can make different contributions according to their talents, building their confidence and motivation. So, the musical student can play background music in a drama, chose or write songs and then teach the team to sing them. There is potential for everyone to get involved and feel challenged and fulfilled.

I want to stress that in doing projects language is used communicatively and as a skill in order to achieve the aim of producing the final product. So, the process of creating the project is, in my mind, more important than what is the final product.

Projects encourage learner autonomy as students have to make their own make choices, take responsibility for their work and begin to develop research and study skills.



Stages of a project

I suggest presenting the stages to the students and talking through them, as well as establishing a time line for each stage, so that there isn’t a final panic towards the end or the project only being half-completed, which is such a disappointment for the whole class.



1.    PLAN

·         Objective – what do they want to achieve e.g. find out more about X, use the language they have studied in the last 2 units

·         Final product – what will they present to the class

·         Resources – what do they need to achieve their goal

·         Roles and tasks – who does what

·         Phases and timings - deadlines

·         Presentation – how and when will they present their project



2.    SEARCH FOR INFORMATION

·         This can be online or they may need to interview people, send out questionnaires etc



3.    TAKE NOTES

·         It is valuable to teach note taking skills, as these do not come naturally. Read through texts together (ideally projected on a board) with your class, pause at important parts and ask if the students think they are important and why, then highlight them

·         Teach students how to rephrase, summarise



4.    CREATE PROJECT

·         With support from teacher



5.    PRESENT

·         Using the chosen medium



6.    EVALUATE

·         Decide who (the students involved, the rest of the class, the teacher) and how the projects are evaluated

·         Those involved may consider not just the product but also have a checklist of how well they practised life skills





Top tips for integrating projects in class



·         Teach the skills needed

·         Link projects to a topic in the course book or a topic the students are particularly interested in e.g. a major local sporting event / festival

·         Do them at the end of term/year after exams as consolidation or relaxation or regularly after each unit of the book

·         Guide your students gently and initially set some of the parameters

·         Monitor students, offer help and keep them on track

·         Ensure learners understand their value


Good luck and enjoy project work!

This article was also published in the HUPE (Croatian Teachers of English) newsletter.

03/03/2019

Balloon Tennis


Balloon Tennis

This game is suitable for all ages and levels



·       Blow up one balloon

·       Divide your class into two teams (once the students have got used to the game, you can organise them into smaller groups of 2 teams each, each group needs a balloon – but consider the space you have available. You could use the playground for this).



·       e.g. with younger learners explain that they have to remember vocabulary for food

·       One team starts with a member hitting the balloon across to the opposition team and at the same time shouting (so all can hear) one word for an example of food e.g. chocolate

·       Next a member of the opposition team has to hit the balloon back shouting a different food word

·       If no one can think of a new word or repeats a word – that team loses the point (this encourages the learners to listen carefully)

·       If the balloon drops to the floor – the receiving team loses the point

·       You can score the game like tennis

·       You can change the lexical set whenever necessary



·       With older learners you can review a topic prior to a writing task e.g. the advantages and disadvantages of the internet

·       Nominate which team should shout advantages and which disadvantages

·       Play as above

This game has a number of advantages

·       It is kinaesthetic and can energise the class

·       It’s a team game and promotes a sense of community

·       The focus is on the balloon and shyer students feel relaxed and more likely to participate

·       You can change/play with the rules to suit your class and any language you want to practise

·       The balloon is quite slow and easier to keep in the air than a ball

05/12/2018

Life Skills


Life Skills – that’s the latest buzz word/phrase you are probably hearing now. But what are life skills and how are English teachers expected to teach them?



More students than ever are going to University in the UK (over a third of 18 year olds), so we could assume that we are creating a very able work force equipped to deal with the challenges of life in the 21st Century. Yet we read about companies complaining that graduates come for job interviews without the basic skills needed to succeed in challenging and fast-changing work environments where team work and creativity are prized more highly than exam results and the acquisition of knowledge. This is not new. In 1990, Robert Fisher said the following in his book: Teaching Children to Think.


Skills that were appropriate 20 years ago no longer prepare children for the world beyond school. Changes in society are accelerating so rapidly that it is difficult to assess what factual knowledge will be needed for the future.



We need to be teaching children and young people knowledge and skills that become part of the way they grow, learn and create relationships with people throughout their lives.



These life skills have been mapped out with corresponding competencies and clearly aligned to the different age groups by Cambridge University Press. I won’t repeat it all here but have a look at their website, where they are clearly laid out and explained:



The life skills delineated by CUP are:

1. Creativity and innovation

2. Critical thinking and problem solving

3. Computer literacy

4. Learning to learn

5. Communication

6. Collaboration

7. Emotional skills

8. Social responsibilities



The Big Question I get from teachers is ‘How can we add this to our teaching as we don’t have enough time to cover the syllabus anyway?’

The good thing is there are two answers to this:

a.   Teachers already include life skills in ELT and b. by focussing on them more directly could get even more done more efficiently.



How do we already focus on life skills? And how can that be improved? Here are a few examples.

(1)                reading comprehension

It encourages Critical Thinking & Problem solving. We lead students to

      Understand key points

      Evaluate texts

      Evaluate opinions

      And, hopefully, ask effective questions



A really effective reading (or listening) task I use with all ages is the KWL approach. Which stands for:

What do you know?

What do you want to know?

What have you learnt?

Step K

So, before reading a text, for example, about The Destruction of the Amazon Forest, students share everything they already know about the Amazon and what they have learnt/picked up about deforestation in the news or in other school subjects etc.

Step W

Then the teacher asks students to think about what they would like to learn from the text and write up questions either individually, in groups or as a class.  They then read the text, looking for the answers to their own questions and underline any parts of the text which answer them.

Step L

Students share information from the text which has answered their questions, collating what they have learnt.

If there are still outstanding unanswered questions, they can research the topic online or by asking others like family members and bring those answers to the next class.



This simple technique (there is NO teacher preparation involved) not only puts information into context by activating schemata and previous knowledge, but also helps them see connections (ie what we learn from the TV can be applied and helpful in other contexts like the classroom – avoiding compartmentalisation of knowledge), personalises the process and encourages students to approach reading critically and authentically. This is how I read (and listen to) newspapers and articles and talks on subjects that interest me. It’s a real-life skill.




(2)                Reading stories with our young learners is a great way to develop emotional skills.



These are two of the competencies for Emotional Skills:

·         Identifying and talking about own emotions

·         Empathy & relationship skills: recognising & responding appropriately to other’s emotional state



Any teacher of children, reading stories with them will be asking their students questions like: Is the forest scary? Do you like bears? Why is the little girl scared? Are you scared in the dark?

If the children then act out the stories, they can do so with the appropriate emotions, too.




(3)                Project work



Have you tried doing project work with students and it’s all gone horribly wrong? Students arguing? Some students doing all the work and some little or none? Time running out and nothing concrete achieved? All the work done in L1 and little English practised? That has certainly happened with some of my classes in the past.

Now here is a perfect opportunity for putting the development of Collaboration Skills into practice.

Collaboration includes: sharing, listening to others, team work, and competing in teams. In order to ensure that project work is successful for all involved and that English and Collaboration skills are practised and developed the following guidelines need to be followed, teachers should:

  • Ensure that the language, collaboration and other goals* and steps of the project are clearly set up and agreed by students
  • Pre-teach the English that is needed to communicate during the project, beginning with such simple language as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with pre-primary students
  • Explain and discuss the need for collaboration with their students
  • Set out clearly how the success of the task is the responsibility of each member of the group
  • Closely monitor group work and give timely feedback
  • Encourage the teams to celebrate work well done



*If students are aware that one of the aims of the project is to develop their collaboration skills and how that is important for them in the future, they will appreciate the value of the task and not feel that group work is a waste of time and not of any help in passing exams, as is unfortunately often the case with teen classes.

We really cannot just say: ‘Now work together.’




(4)                Learning to learn



Finally, a skill that is not necessarily focussed on in all lessons, particularly with young leaners: learning to learn.  

The competencies for this skill include

·         Practical skills for participating in learning

·         Reflecting on and evaluating own learning success

·         Identifying & articulating learning goals

·         Identifying & using effective learning techniques



Nyar Ibrahim at the British Council in Paris has done some excellent research with children as young as 6 or 7, asking them at the end of lessons to reflect on and explain what they learnt and how in today’s lesson, proving it’s never too young to start this reflective process. Spending just 4 or 5 minutes at the end of each lesson to allow students to consider what and how they have learnt seems to be time well spent if they can account for their own language development and understand the teaching/learning methods that work best for them as well as seeing beneath the ‘smoke screen’ of the lesson at the methodology that lies beneath.


Why not ask students to consider some key questions like:

·         What do I want to learn this week and why?

·         What techniques help me understand and remember English words?

·         How can I help myself improve my English at home?



Or allow them to

·         choose their own homework task after a lesson

·         set their own learning goals for a term

·         tell you what kind of activities they prefer to do in lessons and why



So, Life Skills in the English Language classroom? We already help develop life skills to certain extents, but we can be more systematic. By being more aware of which skills we are developing and why and allowing students to recognise this we can do a lot more to help our students develop not only their English proficiency but also skills that will help them throughout their lives.


09/02/2018

High Frequency Spoken Expressions

I was in Austria earlier this week presenting a session about Developing Oral Communication. Although we may know 60-75,000 words in our mother tongue, we don't actually use anywhere near that many in our day-to-day exchanges. In fact, a lot of our spoken language consists of formulaic chunks, which can easily be taught, practised and used.

I presented the following activity for classroom practice. Cut up the cards and distribute one to each student, then ask students to mingle, read out their phrase and see if they can create an exchange with the two utterances.

Once they have a partner, the students can expand on their dialogue by adding a few more lines to create more of a story.


You must be joking!

That’s not my fault.

Wow. That’s amazing!


I can’t believe it!

That’s very kind of you.

Congratulations.


I’m so sorry.

No, thank you.

Yes, of course.

That’s so sad.

That’s interesting.

That’s wrong.


That’s ridiculous.
I have ten children.

Would you like a coffee?

I’m getting married next week.

You’re welcome.

I’ve won the lottery.

Superman just flew in the window.

Can you help me?

I’ve met Barack Obama.

Can I help you?

My dog died.

I collect stamps.

There are more people in Austria than China.

I’m 21 years old.