For a teacher, assessment can be exhausting.
You may even think of it as the bane of your working life.
It can seem endless and, even worse, at times it can seem pointless: reams of paperwork imposed from on high that impact classroom teaching in a negligible way.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, it shouldn’t be!
To ensure that you understand where your EAL (English as an Additional Language) students need help, both with English and any other subject matter being taught, it is important to incorporate regular assessment into class time.
Luckily, there are lots of quick and painless ways you can do this.
In this article, we will look at a variety of practical EAL assessment techniques that will greatly improve your students’ learning and that can be done “on the hop.”
Let’s start with defining what we mean when we talk about assessment.
What Is EAL Assessment?
It is useful to distinguish two broad categories of assessment here, formative assessment and summative assessment.
Summative assessment refers to assessment that provides data that “summarizes” the learning of your students over a period of time. Usually, it is undertaken at the end of a unit, term, semester or year.
The data provided can be used to measure “value added” when used in conjunction with baseline testing, but has little implication for short- or medium-term planning.
Formative assessment, on the other hand, refers to that assessment which is done on an ongoing basis while students learn. It is a crucial part of the learning-teaching process, as it informs planning in the short- to medium-term. It allows the teacher to respond to the needs and pace of their students as they progress through their learning.
Formative assessment will be the focus of this post. We will look at some formative assessment strategies that can be easily woven into the fabric of a good lesson plan, providing essential feedback for the planning-delivery-assessment cycle.
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Scheduling Assessment Strategies into Your Day
The beauty of these simple strategies is the ease with which they can be crowbarred into your day. For the most part, they require little in the way of preparation, other than familiarizing the class with a procedure. Once the students are familiar with a procedure, the strategy can be repeated with ease.
To add these strategies to your “bag of tricks,” I suggest choosing one or two to focus on for a week. Once your class is comfortable with those procedures, you can begin to add another one. In no time, you will be able to use any of these eight simple strategies to assess your students “on the hop.”
EAL Assessment on the Hop: 8 Anytime Strategies for Testing Your Students’ Understanding
1. Using Virtual Learning Environments
For most of us, technology is a huge part of our lives. It has greatly enhanced what we do as educators in the classroom. Whether planning or delivering a lesson, we have become used to employing technology to assist us.
Assessment need be no different. There are many Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) available for free online with a variety of assessment capabilities.
Edmodo and Moodle are two of the more popular VLEs at the moment. I have used both, and will tell you a little about each.
Edmodo, known as the Facebook of education, allows you to share videos, PDFs and other resources with your students via a secure login code. As with Facebook, students enrolled in your group can post messages to a virtual wall. This can provide useful insight via discussion as to how their learning is progressing, and has been particularly useful to me when teaching at university level, where my class sizes are quite large (averaging approximately 60). The interactivity is also extremely useful for students getting to know each other given that often they only share one class together per week.
I used Moodle for several years when I was teaching school-aged kids. It is well-designed and easy to use. With Moodle, I could set up my course for the term ahead of time. You can decide when you want the resource to become visible to students as you work your way through the course. As a bonus, I also used it to set homework tasks, which reduced photocopying as part of our “Green School” initiative.
What’s most important, from the perspective of formative assessment, are the built-in assessment tools such as polls and quizzes you can utilize with both Edmodo and Moodle. The VLEs will even collate the data for you.
For another VLE that’s great for assessment and made especially for language learners and their teachers, check out the teacher accounts on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU comes pre-loaded with a ton of fun and level-appropriate material for your students, as well as Assignments and Progress features, which allow you to assign your students videos to “learn” for homework and to track the progress of each individual student. Zero-effort assessment at your fingertips!
2. The Thumb-o-meter
The Thumb-o-meter provides instant feedback from every student for any subject matter, with minimal preparation. All you need is an accompanying explanation when the concept is first introduced to your class.
It works like this: After a teaching point, ask the class to indicate their comprehension level via “The Thumb-o-meter.” If they understood 100% of the teaching, they give you a “thumbs-up,” while a completely inverted thumb indicates the student understood nothing. A horizontal thumb indicates that the student understood approximately half of what was taught. Students can adjust according to their confidence.
The beauty of this simple technique is that students can indicate their self-assessed comprehension instantly by a twist of their wrist. The teacher can quickly get a “thermometer reading” of individual students and the class as a whole. Does the topic need revisiting, or is the class, in general, ready to move on?
It also allows you to spot individual students who are having difficulties. You can then accordingly differentiate your planning to fill their gaps in learning.
3. Draw It!
This is a particularly useful way to assess the comprehension of EAL students.
With the dominance of the direct method of teaching English, and the mobility of English teachers in general, it is often the case that the teacher will not be able to speak, or will purposely not speak, their students’ native language.
This can lead to difficulties when attempting to get verbal feedback to assess the students’ understanding.
While the technique above, The Thumb-o-meter, is undoubtedly useful, it does leave open the possibility that a student could dishonestly report their comprehension of a teaching point. They could also misinterpret how much of the teaching point they understood.
Enter the Draw It! technique. This is a little more time consuming, but it can better provide an accurate “picture” of the depth of a student’s understanding.
All you need to employ this method is a little pre-teaching of the process, pencil and paper. This strategy involves having your students illustrate the concept or vocabulary they have been working on.
This approach suits visual learners, and avoids the trap of the mere translation of terms, as the students get to illustrate their understanding rather than expressing it verbally.
I found this technique particularly useful recently while teaching a second-year undergraduate group of Thai students during a course on language acquisition. Their English was lower-intermediate level, and some of the vocabulary being learned—including words and phrases such as “monolingual,” “bilingual” and “multilingual”—was relatively difficult.
While I can speak intermediate Thai myself, I wanted to avoid using it as a crutch on this occasion. I asked them to illustrate the concepts we had been working on. The results were highly creative. Some drew pictures of two-tongued people with the tongues colored according to relevant national flags for the word “bilingual.” Others depicted the appropriate number of speech bubbles emanating from a mouth containing national flags to indicate the number of languages spoken.
It was very clear to see who had understood the vocabulary in question. Those who were struggling with the concepts grasped them easily when they saw their neighbors’ efforts. “Now,” I thought, “we are ready to move on in our learning.”
4. The Whiteboard Brainstorm
We are all familiar with the concept of brainstorming, so why not use it as a method of formative assessment?
With The Whiteboard Brainstorm, students can share their understanding of a particular topic on a public space for the whole class to see. You can do this by taking down each speaker’s ideas on the board or, as I like to do, have the class brainstorm as a group.
This can be chaotic, fun and valuable. You can have students use different colors of marker to fill the whiteboard with their knowledge. It can also be done at the beginning of the lesson to test for prior learning.
Working as a whole class allows students to practice their communication skills, and is very suited to some Asian cultures where group work is strongly favored. It also affords opportunities for students to learn from one another.
When completed, my students often take a photograph of their group brainstorm to refer to when revising.
Just as we take time to reflect on our own efficacy as educators, it is important to encourage our students to regularly reflect on their learning progress.
This self-reflection not only develops the maturity of our students by encouraging them to direct their own learning, but it also provides formative assessment information for us as teachers.
Self-assessment can take the form of the student commenting, in writing or orally, on their own work.
A more structured method is to provide the student with a checklist based on what they are working on. For example, if engaged in a piece of writing, say writing a set of instructions, provide a checklist including things like imperatives, time connectives, diagram, captions, bullet points, etc. Choose whatever is relevant to the genre. When they have completed their first draft, give out the checklist. Students can check what they have completed and then redraft to include any elements they have omitted.
Having individual students, or groups of students, re-teach a concept is a great way for them to reconstruct their learning and reinforce the learning of their peers. It’s also an opportunity for you to assess their learning so far.
Plus, it offers all students an opportunity to practice their listening and speaking skills, two of the four main abilities of language learning.
This technique can take the form of a presentation to the whole class, or be done on a smaller scale, as in the case of “teach a friend.”
Regardless of the format, this option serves as an efficient way to assess student learning while developing speaking and listening confidence.
7. The Question Cycle
The Question Cycle involves students generating questions for each other and considering each other’s answers.
It can be adapted to suit a wide variety of material, and works for testing reading comprehension, vocabulary work or oral sentence structures.
Have your students stand in a circle. Get the ball rolling by asking the student next to you a question based on what they have been learning. After they answer, ask the next student whether or not they agree with the first student’s answer. This gets them to think critically about the first question. Then ask them their own question based on what the class has been working on. Ask the next student whether they agree with the answer, and repeat the process until all students have answered their two questions.
The teacher does need to ask quite a few questions in this activity. However, in my experience, this does not require a lot of preparation. I usually generate questions from glances at my lesson plan. It is also often appropriate to slightly modify questions repeatedly—for example, to use questions to target specific grammar.
8. Two Stars and a Wish
Two Stars and a Wish is an excellent way to introduce peer assessment into your classroom. Peer assessment helps students think critically about their own work and the work of others. It can also be a useful tool for the over-stretched teacher facing large class sizes.
Have students swap their completed work with each other. You may wish to display criteria for the piece of work on a projector to assist here.
Students then assess each other’s work by commenting on two stars (two things they did well in their work), and one wish (one thing they could improve on).
So there you have it.
Eight simple strategies to assess your students on the hop!
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