Moving away from exams dominance in YL materials: Q & A

In this blog post, Wendy Arnold and Shelagh Rixon answer some of the questions that were raised at the MaWSIG meets YLT SIG webinar, Moving away from exams dominance in YL materials. The webinar was held on 15 November 2019. You can find a recording of the webinar here.

We both enjoyed presenting on Assessment and Young Learners at the ‘MaWSIG meets’ YLT SIG webinar in November 2019. Here are some of the questions that emerged from that event and our responses to them. 

1 If teachers are going to create assessments to go with a coursebook they’re required to use, what tips would you give them? 

SR: First, look to see if there are any testing materials provided by the coursebook publishers. (Assessment material supplied is usually testing material rather than other sorts of assessment.) This can help you to keep to the focus that the course writers felt was important. Secondly, scrutinise, critique and improve them!

Here’s a tip we mentioned in the webinar for matching activities using lists with an equal number of items in each list: since this kind of assessment can lead to children getting full marks by a process of elimination, or getting a low score due to a slip early on, a simple fix is to add two or three ‘distractor’ items to one of the lists, creating the need for more thought and more flexibility in choice of answer. 

Coursebook assessment often focuses on easily identified language items such as vocabulary or grammar structures. It is worth making sure that the skills that you think are important are also included. For this, you may have to create your own tasks and devise your own criteria. There is no shortcut here.

WA:  Of course, it depends on the age group and what they have been working on.

Here is an example of an activity that tests a range of skills, while also reviewing and  checking the understanding of key concepts. A tip when writing assessment tasks for young learners is to make it fun. Young learners love the bizarre so it doesn’t have to be real! 

Learning objectives to be assessed:

Ss understand the concepts of animals and furniture. 

Ss understand colours when they hear and read the words.

Ss understand how to use colours when they speak and write.

Ss understand the concept of size. 

Assessment tasks: 

1 Listen and colour.

Transcript: The small dog is green. 

[Artwork: outline of big and small dog]

2 Look and say.

What colour is the big bird?

[Artwork: big brown bird and small black bird] 

3 Read and colour.

The cat is orange and blue.

[Artwork: outline of stripey cat]

4 Read and circle.

Circle the small chair.

[Artwork: small chair, middle sized chair, large chair] 

5 Read and write.

red  purple  green  orange

[Artwork:  Two rabbits. One big rabbit is purple and the small rabbit orange and red]

The big rabbit is ______________

The small rabbit is _____________

 


2 Do you think tests are less damaging for older learners (teenagers, adults, etc.)?

SR: I think so. By the teens, most learners are more equipped to deal with the stresses and disappointments associated with formal tests and exams. However, any test that is badly designed and creates results that do not reflect a student’s actual ability is likely to create a sense of injustice in at least some learners.

WA: I disagree; I think that older students feel the pain as much as young learners do when they don’t get answers right in a test. We also need to remember that language does not always have a right and wrong answer. It may often depend on how a student is hearing/reading and interpreting questions/text. If the test does not take this into consideration, students may be confused when their answers are marked as incorrect and this can be very damaging. In addition, a test which focuses on accuracy without encouraging fluency and taking the complexity of language into consideration can also be damaging. A focus on accuracy (grammar) above all else, can result in language production which is very stilted.  

Damage from tests can be mitigated if students are supported in learning how to learn (Ellis/Ibrahim’s book is excellent on ideas), so that they start very early on to proofread, self-correct and assess their own progress. It is also important for them to understand that they should not compare themselves with others, but instead compare what they know now with what they knew (or didn’t know) in the past. 

 


3 Is the AfL (Assessment for Learning) movement also spreading in other contexts, beyond YL? 

SR: In fact it started in university education, with Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of King’s College, University of London – and their associates. It has flourished, to our knowledge, in the UK in particular, where it is well embedded in what schools do in all subjects across the curriculum. Although much is being said and written about its potential in English language learning for children and teenagers, this is often in the spirit of trying to excite more interest and adoption. What we very much look forward to is more evidence of its actual use internationally. Perhaps readers can help us here with their reports and descriptions.

WA: Applications of AfL can also be seen in teacher education. For example, a large-scale teacher training programme in Tunisia integrates reflection into the teacher training sessions, so that teachers regularly question and consider what the trainer, their peers and they themselves are doing, or have done. Very like Tessa Woodward’s loop-input approach, the aim is that the teachers realise the benefits of reflection and of ‘noticing’ progress or gaps in their knowledge and abilities. The teachers will then take these skills into the classroom, not only to reflect on their own practice, but also so that they can pass them on to their students (of all ages) and teach them in turn to notice and reflect. This kind of ‘learning to learn’ approach requires judicious use of questions by the teacher and also depends on the teachers encouraging their students to ask their own questions. 

 


4 Is AfL a movement that needs to be spread throughout primary/secondary education, rather than only in ELT?

SR: As we mentioned above, Assessment for Learning is much more established in English-speaking countries and in other areas of education than in English language teaching internationally. In our field of ELT for children and teenagers, it seems to be at a stage at which some teachers find it an interesting possibility and a few are trying to implement it within the particular conditions of their own contexts.

Exams have their valid role in Assessment of learning, for certifying a certain level of competence in a subject, or for allocating limited resources, such as school places, for example. However, Assessment for Learning is about something different: it’s about engaging teachers and learners so that they cooperate to improve learning; it’s also about changing learners’ mindsets towards a more proactive view of their own progress.

WA: It is already in mainstream education in the UK on paper, but practitioners tell another story. My daughter, a primary school teacher in the UK who is currently undergoing training in the implementation of AfL, has observed that what the curriculum requires is not necessarily what is happening in the classroom, and that teachers often need explicit training to be able to put the policies into action.

Teacher education in all contexts is key. Just because the policy says you need to do something doesn’t mean that it automatically happens!

 


5 Can you explain the basics of ‘Plan–Do–Review’?

SR: Yes, but for a more in-depth explanation concerning its origins and role in mainstream education, please refer to the works listed below.

Plan–Do–Review had its origins in mainstream Early Years education. The Plan stage involves making children aware of a project or task that they are about to do and inviting their input on how they think they could go about it. For example, if they are going to produce some artwork, what materials do they think they will need or would they like to use? If they are going to interview someone, what questions should they ask to get the information they need? The Do stage involves the children carrying out the activity or project with appropriate support from the teacher. The Review stage involves the children looking back and thinking about how it went, what they might have done differently, if they are happy with the outcome, what they think they have learned and what they might do differently in the future. Here is some useful further reading:

(1) This title describes the origin of the approach in mainstream education.

Wiltshire, M. (2012) Understanding the HighScope Approach: Early years education in practice. Routledge.

(2) Gail Ellis is a major source in the area of English language teaching for young learners. She has published widely on her practical implementation of Plan–Do–Review. Her book, jointly authored with Nayr Ibrahim, is a must-read. 

Ellis, G. and Ibrahim, N. (2015). Teaching children how to learn: Plan, Do, Review! Delta Publishing.

(3) This chapter by Gail Ellis and Shelagh Rixon gives a clear explanation of the approach in use with very young children.

Ellis, G. & Rixon, S. (2019) Assessment for learning with younger learners: Is thinking about their learning a step too far? In D. Prošić-Santovac & S. Rixon (Eds.), Integrating assessment into early language learning and teaching, p. 87. Multilingual Matters.

WA: Plan–Do–Review is core to Ellis/Ibrahim’s beliefs as described in Teaching children how to learn (reference given above), but it equally aligns with the concept of teaching teachers to teach, so in either scenario one can:  

  • Plan to say/write something.
  • Do it.
  • Review how it went.

It’s the ‘reflective’ part that leads to learning. No one can do the learning for anyone else; it can only be done by an individual when they realise (a) whether or not they were on the right track (b) that they didn’t quite get something right so need to have a good think about what was different, and then adjust themselves.

 


6 Does ‘going over’ common mistakes made in tests somehow make exams less bad? 

SR: ‘Going over’ involves making formative use of the responses to test or exam questions, and so can have positive consequences if carried out in interesting ways (e.g. getting learners to spot the mistakes rather than having the teacher point them out), provided the learners will get another chance in the future to do better on similar challenges.

We don’t think exams and tests are inherently bad, although they can be used for unpleasant purposes (e.g. allocating scarce resources, excluding some from privileges). However, if this is something that society requires, a good exam or test is perhaps a fairer basis for deciding than, say, a learner’s family status or their ability to charm the teacher! What is bad is badly conceived exams and tests which miss the points that should be assessed or are biased in favour of one sort of learner or another. A well-designed and fairly implemented test or exam will usually provide useful food for thought if the questions are ‘gone over’ at a later date. 

WA: the act of going over common mistakes made in tests is the best bit because this reflection leads to understanding – but only if it is not done in the form of a lecture by the teacher. The students need to be helped to ‘notice’ the errors and to be carefully scaffolded to find the correction themselves. It takes time and patience and lots of exposure and practice.

 

Wendy Arnold holds an MA in Teaching English to Young Learners from the University of York, UK. She was a primary teacher of English for 15 years in a Hong Kong state school. She has taught grades 1 to 6, as well as secondary forms 1 to 3. During her time as a teacher, she designed Assessment of Learning (AoL) tests three times a year, as well as Assessment for Learning (AfL) continual assessments. Results from both types of assessments were reported to parents. She has also authored and co-authored primary coursebooks which include both AoL and AfL, and designed teacher training programmes which include both of these components. 

Shelagh Rixon’s first degree was in Classics but, having taught English in Rome for three years in the 1970s, she then trained as a teacher of TESOL to primary and secondary school children. She spent 16 years at the British Council in various roles before joining the University of Warwick as a lecturer in 1991. There she set up and coordinated the MA in Teaching English to Young Learners. She holds an MSc in Applied Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh and in 2012 received a doctorate in the area of early literacy teaching to Young Learners of English. She retired from the University of Warwick in 2009, and is now an Associate Tutor at the University of Leicester. She acts as a school governor and volunteer in two primary schools. She is co-editor, with Danijela Prošić-Santovac, of Integrating Assessment into Early Language Learning and Teaching, published by Multilingual Matters in 2019.

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