<b> Forum for the discussion of assessment and testing of ESL/EFL students </b>

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Post by LarryLatham » Mon Feb 03, 2003 2:37 am

I notice in many of the posts on this board (well, these boards) that teachers frequently say something like: "I've used [these books, this method, some particular approach, etc.] for the last (two years) with great success." Not only do I see and hear statements like this here at Dave's Cafe, but also among my colleagues in my adult ESL school and elsewhere in general. I'm sure you'll recognize the statements as very common.

My question is this: Exactly what is meant by success? Does it mean that the students didn't get up and leave the room during class? Does it mean that I think my lesson went very well? Does it mean we passed the time in class in a pleasant way with everybody smiling (they all had fun)? Or does it truly mean that students genuinely gained something of value to their understanding of or increased skill in the use of English? And my next question would be: "How do you know?"

If anybody would suggest that he knows students made progress because their performance improved on a standard test, I'd just turn around and laugh my way out of the room. Nevertheless, we teachers do need some way of assessing progress.

What are your thoughts? Do you assess your students? If so, how do you do it, and why do you think your method holds water?

Larry Latham

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Post by Roger » Wed Feb 05, 2003 12:32 am

There is always some subjectivity involved in such statements. The teacher has the unique privilege of being allowed to judge others' performance, and he or she sets the standards to some extent, so he or she wants their students to achieve those standards.
But on the other hand, we are sometimes unfamiliar with the materials put at our disposal. We have to learn our ropes on the job all the time. Once we are familiar with a textbook series we prefer that over any new one. We may still grumble about its shortcomings, yet we would recommend it to our colleagues. This shows our own conservative side. We like it safe.
Talking about my students' progress, I keep in mind that someone else might prove it. When I taught for a British school in Hong Kong, that was just what was going to happen: I prepared my students over a period of two years for a final exam during which they were being supervised by a total stranger who was familiar with the subject as he was a teacher of the same subject himself. The oral part was tape-recorded, and the papers were collected and all of these materials were then sent to London for a final reviewing.
My students all passed that exam, and that is why I can say my students did succeed.
This contrasts somewhat with the examination format in use by mainland China schools. Here, you are the students' English teacher for up to one year (seldom longer, though I have had the privilege of teaching for up to two years on three occasions), and you are also their examiner. I am not familiar with the USA situation, but it many American colleagues of mine don't seem to notice the dangers inherent in this. I call it "incestuous relationship with students".
You certainly have to accommodate a lot of students' whims and ignore those who play truant, which is a trend facilitated by the sheer size of our classes here.
Plus you have no clout over your local learners. The grades are sort of predetermined by the school as they always graduate an unrealistically high number of students. The final opinion on "students' success" rests with our Chinese overlords, not with us "foreign experts".
Hence my famously low opinion on Chinese students' performance!

Roddy Kay
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Post by Roddy Kay » Sun Feb 09, 2003 8:47 pm


I come from where you do too ! and I´m sure you´ll also go along with Roger´s reply.
I think for me a good course book is one that helps learners see language in a different way and one that encourages them to analyse linguistic features. It also must have topics and themes to which they can relate which creates the trap of not necessarily being to the teacher´s taste.
I also hope you will agree that getting grammar and vocabulary exercises right, while important, is only a step on the way to using English accurately and appropriately. Therefore for my money, skills work is much more revealing: Compositions, Reading comprehension exercises about the writer´s point of view, Listening, and Speaking which demands some creativity and the expression of sincerely held points of view. A problem is that it is difficult to see progress over the very short term in skills.
Of course, another factor is that the learners themselves want to continue with their English studies. This tends to be a telling consideration at the end of the elementary stages (roughly 200 hours of study); mid intermediate (say 300 hours); and the natural breaks at upper intermediate and through the advanced phases. In the late elementary and mid-intermediate phases, learners often complain that they feel their progress is not fast enough. I personally believe it is vitally important to discuss with them what is achievable.

Hope this is in line with your views.


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Post by LarryLatham » Mon Feb 10, 2003 6:16 am

Hi Roger and Roddy,

I've been away for a few days, and haven't seen your replies until now.

There is always some subjectivity involved in such statements. The teacher has the unique privilege of being allowed to judge others' performance
Actually, I don't object to the subjectivity. In fact, I rather prefer it to the "objective" results attributed to students passing examinations, for some reason. Perhaps my concern about the exams is fueled by my observations of the way test taking and scoring is corrupted wherever I've had the privilege of teaching. More precisely, it isn't so much the tests that bother me, but rather the authority with which statements are made about student success as a result. Maybe my discomfort in these matters stems from the insistence by administrators that student success be measured and quantified. I like it more when an instructor simply says, "Their English seems to be better now than it was." Of course, I realize I'll be crucified here because of the potential for abuse of this kind of assessment. I'll admit there is great potential for abuse.

another factor is that the learners themselves want to continue with their English studies. This tends to be a telling consideration at the end of the elementary stages (roughly 200 hours of study); mid intermediate (say 300 hours); and the natural breaks at upper intermediate and through the advanced phases.
Sorry, Roddy. I'm afraid you've lost me there. I don't quite understand your meaning. Could you expand on that? You may have a good point, but I'm just not getting it.

And, by the way, Roddy, too. I really have no views to be in line with. I'm confused about this. Although I see a need for assessing students, I really don't know how to go about it realistically. I'm looking for help here. How do you know when your work makes a contribution to your students? And why do you think your way of finding out makes sense?

Larry Latham

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Post by Roger » Mon Feb 10, 2003 11:44 am

Thanks, Roddy, for your comments.
I gather you would agree with me in answering Larry's question as to how to assess students "realistically".
In my opinion, students should be assessed on their ability to interpret sentences and contexts by paraphrasing or any other means that shows they can reinterpret it in the target language rather than translating it.
I would also think that they should have to analyse sentence parts the way we have done that at school. Writing a composition using a monolingual (English only) dictionary would be good too! It is sad to state that Chinese students are not supposed to use English imaginatively and creatively by finding vocabulary in a reference book that they have not learnt by rote yet! But for them to do that, they need top be competent enough to decide whether they must use a noun "safety" or adjective "safe" - an ability you cannot at present expect from your average Chinese high-school student who nevertheless no doubt will score anywhere from 80 to 95 in the final exam!
It is easy for me to pontificate like this - most students I see get their final grades from my CHinese colleagues. I often am enlisted to do a token, non-standardised oral exam!

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student assessment -How do you know?

Post by noonlite » Sun Feb 23, 2003 11:52 pm

Congratulations Larry! You are asking the tough questions. You are willing to take a look at yourself as a teacher in the most uncomfortable way. That takes courage. By asking such open and probing questions about your teaching, you put yourself on the fast track to mastery.

The answer to your question is actually quite simple. You know they are progressing when they can do what you taught them to do. That will become apparent to you by asking the right questions and doing the right activities.

Let me give you an example: I recently had a class where we studied simple present tense as a part of the class. There are several ways that I teach this. One way is to act out daily activities after presenting the way the grammar works and making a big show over the magic "s". While acting out the daily activities, I try to elicit from any students in the class any vocabulary or sentence structure to what I'm doing. (I'll typically give them a pronoun such as you or he to start with) "He sleeps every day." With or without a response, I will write what they need on the board after each action. I will then review the same sequensce of sentences a second third, maybe even a fourth time. Then, perhaps, some other part of the lesson (Listening activity maybe) will come in. At the end of the class, however, I will ask different students (individually and make clear the procedure for individual questions it is important for other students to not interrupt and give the answer, you have to be in control of the wait time, and you have to be the one to give hints, or, if necessary, the answer.). If the student asnswers the sentence correctly, he/she has learned. With these kinds of activities I seek complete grammatical accuracy and the best pronunciation possible as a "correct" answer" and allow for other activities where fluency is encouraged and imperfect speech is ok.

The next step is to do the same thing tomorrow! At the beginning of class, act out (You take a shower every day) and get students individually to answer a different action. Randomly select different students and keep it moving quickly. If they all answer correcty: success! Generally you will notice levels and stages of success with different individuals, but it will be obvious to you how well they are progressing if you do something like this.

Another thing I do is ask random questions from past lessons at the beginning of each class to assess vocabulary, grammmar, pronunciation, whatever we've been working on. "Edna, what are three things you do every day?" "Jose, what did you do last night?" "Amir, what do we call it when we put money into the bank?" "Makiko, pronunce the word that I write on the board." The actual purpose of this is not just assessment, however, it is crucial for retention and it is something that I have observed to be missing from the teaching of a great many instructors of ESL and other subjects (Don't even ask about most university lecturers -most of which know nothing about teaching). If the teacher does not continue to recycle previous material in every lesson, that material will soon be forgotten and any success that you do observe will be quite short lived, especially if anything like a final test exists in the curriculum. Feedback from these questions tells you what you need to teach and where your students need more work.

There is much more to be said about this, but there's the gist of it. I think you will find it to be helpful information if you practice it. Basically, the key to good assessment and effective teaching that gets results is in keeping track of what you have taught and continually recycling it through a variety of activities until it becomes automatic on the part of your students. If you are unclear about any of it post another reply and ask me anything you like. Good luck!

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Assessing student progress in English

Post by LarryLatham » Tue Feb 25, 2003 6:02 am

Hello Noonlite,

Thanks for taking time to add to this topic. I'm going to take you up on your offer! 8)
You know they are progressing when they can do what you taught them to do.
Perhaps it is just this simple. But it begs the question: "How do I know that I'm teaching the right stuff?" (Remember, my original question was: "How do I know my work makes a contribution to my students?") It brings up a distinction I sometimes like to make between teaching and training. I can work with a dog for several days of hard training, and teach him to stop barking on command. Moreover, I can assess his progress in "stop-barking technique" by checking to see if he quiets down when I give him the command. But can I now expect him to understand that I disapprove of excessive barking and that I want him to generally lead a quieter life? If what I really want is for him to be a better dog, can I be sure that training him to be quiet on command will lead to what I want? If he's out in the yard one day and a lovely lady canine trots by on her owner's leash, will he remember what he should do to be a "better dog?" By the same token, if what I and my students really want of their study is that they learn to use English well enough to conduct their daily lives (whatever that may mean to each of them individually) in English, can I be sure that training them to always append an '-s' to present tense verbs having a 3sg subject will advance them towards what I and they want? Perhaps I can 'test' them on it in class. Will they absorb it, and make it part of their behaviour out of class? Actually, my understanding is that third-person "-s" is one of the last things students typically acquire, regardless of their "advanced" status or whether they "know" it (as in display it in classroom behavior). Would I and my students be better off using our limited class time for something else more likely to advance them towards their goal? Our time with them is limited, and we can hardly teach them everything about English. Not to mention that we don't know it.

I'm rambling too much here, and apologize for that. As I read over my own post here, what seems to emerge is that there must be a clear integration and constant vigilance of both what we "teach" and how we assess it. I'm not totally satisfied with your statement, Noonlite!!! Part of assessment must include assessment of what we are doing in the classroom as well as what our students are doing. :shock:

Larry Latham

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Post by stephen » Tue Feb 25, 2003 9:44 am

Dear Larry

You've started an interesting thread; it is an important question. Assessment is quite possibly the hardest part of teaching. The ability to use the language represents one important area of assessing the students progress and the teachers performance. This obviously will involve some form of skills assessment, standardized or otherwise.

However, I would like to highlight another important though perhaps less obvious aspect of successful teaching. That is what in EFL jargon is called "Learner Training". This is an often neglected part of teaching. The idea of learner training is that students aquire the skills necessary to learn. The assessment of this is in itself problematic as it cannot (to my knowledge) be directly assessed. Let me exemplify, take the idea of the development of some form of extensive reading amoungst a class of students, that is reading outside of the classroom for the sake of reading in itself. This requires that students have certain basic skills, things like word attack skills such as the ability to recognise and understand affixes. It also requires the development of text attack skills, the most important of which is the ability to keep reading and interpret unknown words from the text. It also involves the learner's gaining of the ability to read independently. This kind of learner training takes time and energy to develop while the benefits will not show up quickly, especially as extensive reading itself requires the use of texts below the level of the students (so they can be read quickly without too much difficulty.) However, should a teacher develop the necessary skills and cultivate an interest in reading which causes the student to read (not translate) in their own time, then this in itself can be considered to constitute success, although the benefits will take a fair period of time to materialise. (Unfortunately, this kind of success is rarely recognised and valued by school administrators.)

Another aspect of "learner training" that is frequently overlooked is teaching students how to interact with each other within the classroom. While in some parts of the world this may not be a problem, in many Asian countries it certainly is. Students must learn how to interact with each other properly and behave appropriately before they can learn effectively.(Yes, I am talking about adults-as I'm sure other contributors such as Roger will confirm, a number of Asian countries' educational systems foster classroom behaviour which can only be considered detrimental to the learning of English.) Again such training although essential is difficult to quantify. (And, again rarely recognised and valued by school administrators.)

Within the realm of testing students retention and production of items they have learnt, what you do will depend upon the age, level and aims of the class. Noonlite has given some suggestions for monitoring progress, I would like to also make a suggestion. You may find it productive to have students write tests for each other. For example, instead of writing a vocabulary test for the students, place the students into groups and have each group write a vocabulary test for another.

I hope my ideas are of some interest.

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Student assessment

Post by LarryLatham » Tue Feb 25, 2003 5:15 pm

Hello Stephen, and welcome,

Thanks for your thought provoking post. I do indeed agree that one of the potentially most fruitful yet often overlooked and, as you've pointed out, undervalued aspects of our task as educators (regardless of what subject we may teach) is to help our students learn how to learn. Many adults all over the world have little history of success in this--either because they've had very little experience with school at all, or perhaps because they've been involved in a system which encourages rigid memorization of rote factual material and have no experience in thinking for themselves. Roger, as you mentioned, will corroborate that.

In language education, one of the most helpful skills for students to have is the capability to notice and act upon differences between what they hear and see and what they themselves do or would do. For example, borrowing from Gary B. in Detroit for a moment, if I as the teacher (or any native-speaker interlocutor) say, "What are you doing?", the good student notes the word order is not like his own, "What you are doing?" It is astonishing, as I'm sure you and other readers of this are all too aware of, how many opportunities for improvement are missed entirely by students. You can say, "What are you doing?" fifty times and some students will continue to speak or write, "What you are doing?" Good students, it seems, do not allow their interlanguage to become fossilized. Perhaps we, as good teachers, should help draw our students' attention to fossilization of interlanguage, and warn them repeatedly against it. As adults, they should be able to understand that. It will help them to begin to think for themselves and assume larger responsibility for their own learning.

The larger issue in all of this, of course, is what can we do in the classroom to help our students learn English. Helping them develop better language learning skills is certainly one part of this. Just how to best do it is another question, an important one, but one too often ignored.

Larry Latham

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Assessment and Learning

Post by LarryLatham » Sat Mar 08, 2003 12:58 am

Hello again all,

This thread seems to have died. :o

Is it too boring? Just too much? Or is there so much excitment elsewhere that we've all simply forgotten about it?

Larry Latham

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how 2 learn

Post by sita » Sat Mar 08, 2003 6:22 am


At German schools the subject "Lerntechniken" is offered
Teaching students different strategies HOW to learn

I think that is a good idea! It is a mix of theory and testing the various ways!

Siân :D

I wrote this for my students: ... cle&sid=16


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Post by Roger » Sun Mar 09, 2003 1:10 am

Teaching students how to learn might be a good idea (learning strategies!).
But these techniques have first got to be taught to teachers. I guess that teachers too need an uniform set of basic teaching techniques (Lehrtechniken).

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learning strategies

Post by sita » Sun Mar 09, 2003 6:59 am

Hi Roger!

Teaching techniques: this is part of your studies at German university.
I didn't mention it as I assumed it was obvious, sorry!

Siân :twisted:

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Re: Assessment and Learning

Post by crisbarbe10 » Wed Apr 16, 2003 2:01 am

Do you really think this question of assesing students performance could be boring ? I do believe you've made them all think about this ! :shock:
Congrats! :D

Assessing is not easy but I consider it all depends on what you want to assess. I use a diagram system with an agreed score the students know for each aspect I want to test in their learning process.
Testing their performance in oral interaction is not the same as checking their accuracy in the use of a certain grammar structure so I believe I should assess their performance in different ways. But it's fair to let them know what you expect from them and that's why I mentioned an agreed score.
If you are interested in some of the diagrams I talk about you can contact me or find thousands of them, which you can adapt to your class, in the web.

As for a succesful book used through out two years I think it sounds nice but it's never true....there aren't , luckily, two classes asking for the same thing, acting the same way or having the same needs.
Best regards. :wink:

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