foreign-language-rubrics

Foreign Language Rubrics: A Guide to Writing Analytic and Holistic Rubrics

The word “rubric” has its roots in the Latin word for the color red.

Red is the color of my true love’s hair.

It’s the color of firetrucks, stop signs and other important, attention-getting things in our lives.

It was also the color of the “rules” for giving the liturgy back in the times when mass was said in Latin. What the priest said was in black, while how he was supposed to say it was printed in red, rubrum in Latin.

A foreign language rubric will give you guidance in your classroom, just like that red-printed rubrum would give guidance to a priest.

The modern-day foreign language rubric is not so much a set of rules telling you how to do something, but rather a set of guidelines for assessing how your students have performed. It’s also an invaluable teaching tool.

There are a lot of class activities and tasks that are challenging when we’re trying to create reliable, verifiable and fair criteria for marking progress.

That’s where a rubric comes in handy: Rubrics give us score-able objectives. They can be transformed into reliable teaching and learning tools for you and your students.

If you’ve ever felt lost when grading a fistful of short essays, maybe you’ve been missing a rubric in your life!

If you want your students to focus on specific aspects of role-play, writing a rubric can help you to outline what you expect when they’re acting out. Essay writing, general participation, just about every aspect of your class can be assessed with rubrics.

In this post we’ll look at basic types of rubrics, how they’re structured, how to write expectations and assign assessment values. Finally, I’ll leave you a bonus of a couple of rubrics for really challenging class activities and tasks.
 

 

Analytic and Holistic: The 2 Main Types of Rubrics

Analytic rubrics

An analytic rubric looks at the details of the task being assessed.

An analytic rubric focuses on specifics. In the case of writing, for example, you might look at specifics such as grammar, vocabulary use, sentence structure, composition, main ideas and cohesion.

In an oral presentation, you may be looking at body language, vocal expression, pronunciation, as well as introduction, logical argument and conclusion.

Holistic rubrics

Holistic rubrics take a few steps back and are a more general, global look at the task. You’ll be assessing overall accomplishment rather than the details that make up the accomplishment.

Say you have an essay that uses persuasive language well, despite some grammar or vocabulary issues. You may consider such an essay better, in certain circumstances, than an essay that’s grammatically correct but doesn’t persuade or has little content value.

Watching a role-play that entertains, that’s generally understood by all and demonstrates the hard work put in by the participants can often lead you to overlook sentence fragments, poorly-conjugated verbs or pronunciation issues, depending on what you’re assessing.

Make the Grade: How to Write Effective Foreign Language Rubrics

1. Start with Basic Rubric Structure

While being creative is fashionable in modern foreign language teaching, creating a rubric will actually begin with a pretty standard format. This format simplifies the seemingly complex task of assessing a task.

The chart

Before you even begin brainstorming content, you’ll want to lay out a chart. Flip a Word document into landscape mode and lay out a basic chart with four or five columns and the same number of rows. You can always add an extra row or column later if you want to add something.

It’s a good idea to set the first row and first column in centered bold type. These will be the title cells, and having them in bold helps you to visually recognize your criteria.

Rows

Each row in your chart will be titled with the general area or objective that you’ll be assessing.

For example, if you’re grading essays, you might title each of your rows as:

  • Grammar
  • Main ideas
  • Vocabulary use
  • Overall composition

Keep these titles short and sweet. They represent the main teaching points or objectives you have had in mind while preparing your classes.

Columns

Title each column with a “value” of performance, using either a descriptive adjective, such as “excellent” or “good,” or a number, or a combination of both.

This type of scheme is an expansion on the “right/wrong” answer scenario in a normal test. Instead of simply identifying right or wrong, you’re looking at a specific aspect and judging if it’s “excellent,” “good” or “needs work.” If we combine the example rows for an essay rubric in the previous section with these, we’ll get something like this:

ExcellentGoodNeeds work
Grammar
Main ideas
Vocabulary
Composition

We’ll look a bit more closely at these row and column titles in a moment.

Now it’s time to fill in the cells. This is where you’ll explain what you mean when you think the student’s grammar is “excellent” or when their composition is simply “good” with specific expectation statements. Let’s take a look at how to write those.

2. Decide on Your Expectations

Be concise

An expectation is the performance you want from your student when they’re performing the task you’ve assigned to them. You’re not looking for errors they make but rather concentrating on how well they’re doing.

When creating your expectations, use as few words as possible. It’s best to limit yourself to one sentence. Instead of:

The student will be able to use vocabulary learned in previous classes, conjugating verbs correctly according to person and time, adding appropriate suffixes and prefixes and respecting correct word order, while using the most recent vocabulary learned in class in the correct fashion….

Your expectation should read:

Vocabulary is used appropriately, taking advantage of previously and recently studied words, their forms and conjugations.

You’re looking for expectations that focus your attention. While assessing a student with a rubric, you’ll ask yourself the simple, yes/no question: Did the student meet with these expectations?

Be clear

Though you want your expectations to be concisely worded, you also want them to be understandable, both for you and your students. If you use words like “appropriately,” make sure you have a clear idea what you mean:

  • Is the use appropriate to the context?
  • Is it appropriate to the student’s proficiency?
  • Is it appropriate to the task?

If you’re writing an analytic rubric for a specific task (for example, writing an essay with past tense verb forms) you might want to be a bit more specific:

  • Past tense verb forms are used correctly nine out of ten times.
  • They’re used correctly six out of ten.
  • They’re used correctly three out of ten.

Each expectation will be slipped into the appropriate (there’s that word again!) assessment/value column. A student who achieves 9/10 will get a different score than one who only gets 3/10. How do you assign the value? By using the assessment values.

3. Choose Your Assessment Values

These will be the titles you put at the head of each of your columns. Yes, we talked about these earlier—suggesting language like “needs work,” “good” and “excellent.” This will guide you when you’re explaining what you expect from your students at each level of performance.

Using words

Placing descriptive adjectives as titles for columns is a good place to start. You’re teaching language, after all, so assigning values like “excellent,” “above average,” “good,” and “needs work” helps you communicate your assessments to your students.

The adjectives you choose should be encouraging, though. “Needs work” obviously sounds much better than “poor” or “unsatisfactory.” You may need to include a “task not completed” category for those few times that a student just doesn’t even come close to making the grade.

Using adjectives isn’t always useful, though, when calculating an overall grade for the activity. That’s where adding numbers comes in very handy.

Using numbers

Seems like a no-brainer, yet sometimes we all need to be reminded. Numbers don’t lie. They’re clean and clear and easy to understand.

2 + 2 always equals 4!

Assign basic numerical values to each of your expectations. The basic number scale will be easy to design. If a higher number is what you choose to represent better performance (that’s the standard way to go) and you have four performance levels to assign, then:

  • Excellent = 4 points
  • Above average = 3 points
  • Satisfactory = 2 points
  • Needs work = 1 point
 4321
Grammar
Main ideas
Vocabulary
Composition

What do you do, though, if one objective, like grammar or main ideas, is more important to the overall score? This problem is solved by weighing each objective.

Weighing importance

Let’s use essay writing as an example and say that the aspects you want to assess include:

  • Grammar and vocabulary
  • Sentence structure
  • Composition
  • Content

Now, if your objective is to assess how well students have used the passive voice and the vocabulary related to a theme you’ve recently taught, you may consider “grammar and vocabulary” to be more important than the overall composition.

On the other hand, you may have just given a lesson on correct essay composition and opinion expression, so you want to concentrate on what they have to say and how they’ve presented their thoughts.

In either scenario, you’ll assign a “weight” to each of these aspects or goals. In the first case, “grammar and vocabulary” may have a weight of 2 while the remaining aspects have no additional weight assigned. In the second example, both “composition” and “content” will carry a weight number while the remaining goals do not.

When calculating the score, you simply multiply the basic value by the weight number and note the result as the assessment score for that aspect. So, “grammar” performed at an “excellent” level is equal to 4 (the excellent score) × 2 (the weight of the “grammar and vocabulary” category), which naturally is 8.

Assigning final scores

Finally, once you’ve assessed, given feedback and recorded the numerical scores, you’ll need to give those total scores a value.

You’ll begin by calculating the total highest score. In the first example above, that would be (Excellent = 4):

  • Grammar and vocabulary 4 × 2 = 8
  • Sentence structure 4
  • Composition 4
  • Content 4

Total possible score: 20 points.

Now divide that total score by the total number of assessment levels: 20 / 4 = 5.

So, for each increment of 5 points you can reassign your descriptive adjectives:

  • 16-20 = Excellent
  • 11-15 = Above average
  • 6-10 = Satisfactory
  • 1-5 = Needs work

4. Use Your Foreign Language Rubrics to Teach and Assess

Wed your rubric to your class plan

Your rubric is more than a guide for scoring your students’ activities. Combined with your day-to-day planning, it should be a basic guide for you in teaching.

Imagine that you’ve spent a week explaining and doing exercises with your students on the subjunctive in Spanish. You’ve taught:

  • the construction of the verb form,
  • the situations in which it’s used,
  • the meaning behind its use in speaking Spanish.

Students have done homework and now you’re ready to evaluate their understanding. In a short role-play exercise, your rubric might read:

  • Construction: Students have correctly conjugated the main verb.
  • Situations: Students have recognized subjunctive triggers (ojalá, espero que, etc).
  • Meaning: Students have chosen subjunctive use in appropriate situations.

If you keep your rubric in mind while teaching, your teaching will also include what you expect your students to get out of the lectures, exercises and practice. When it’s time to assess them, they’ll know that you’ll be looking out for those same aspects.

Expose the rubric to students

Share those expectations with your students. Many of the concepts we teach in language class are generalizations of language: the subjunctive, the passive voice, modal verbs. We sometimes teach these general concepts without letting our students know “what will be on the test” until right before that test.

Before launching a unit on any language aspect, give your students the rubric you’ll be using to assess them. With this tool, they can focus on details and actively prepare themselves.

Students can use your rubric as a self-assessment tool. If you use clear, understandable, descriptive adjectives for assessment, you can create a “score card” for students to use when observing group activities, like role-plays or presentations. Peer assessment is helpful, since students often share the same issues in language class, at times understanding one another better than their teacher.

Strive for fairness

As language teachers, we’ve all had to correct essays. I’ll bet the following situation has happened to you:

The scenario:

You’ve asked your students to write an essay on global warming. You’ve given them some texts to read, perhaps you’ve watched “An Uncomfortable Truth” together in class. Your instructions may be “Write an essay on global warming. Please include one argument for and against the concept. Word count should be between 200 and 500 words.”

The conflict:

The next day, you have 20 essays on your desk. You read the first one, it’s pretty good, content is fine, 254 words, grammar a bit sketchy here and there, a little repetitive. You give it an “excellent.”

The next two or three are pretty easy as well. A couple are similar to that first one, a couple are really wanting some work. Then you come to one that makes you realize that all the previous ones share the same issue: No one has used proper paragraph structure, it’s all one block of text. So, you have to go back to the first one again and mark it down because you really expect paragraphs.

Or you may notice that all of your students are all incorrectly using the same verb structure. You marked down for this error on that first essay, but now you have to go back and be more fair because you’ve realized that maybe you failed in getting the idea across to almost all of your students.

The problem:

Grading in this fashion, you end up assessing the class as a group rather than looking at the work of each student. You haven’t clearly defined your expectations beforehand and you’re allowing each new essay to alter your assessment. Though you may recognize areas where you need to improve as a teacher, you’re not assessing each student as an individual.

The solution:

With a clear set of expectations to apply to each individual before you, you’ll fairly apply those expectations to each student. If you expect students to manipulate that verb form correctly, if you have that in mind from the beginning, if you have informed your students that you expect this from them, each essay you read will pass through that filter, with a simple yes/no answer to the question: “Did they meet my expectations?”

5. Follow Useful Examples of Foreign Language Rubrics

The expectations listed in the following examples will probably fall into the assessment column with the highest value. You’ll work down from these, lowering your expectations to each of the values you consider appropriate for the assessment.

Role-play rubrics

For role-play assessment, the value titles can be excellent/good/needs work or 3/2/1. Remember to use clear adjectives if you’re handing out self-assessment score cards to students observing the scene.

Analytic grammar/vocabulary use rubric

  • Students have used the recently-taught grammar appropriately in their scene.
  • Students have employed vocabulary specific to the subject of their scene.
  • Word forms (verb conjugation, etc) have been used correctly.

Holistic performance/participation rubric

  • Students have quickly outlined the scene and assigned roles and sentences.
  • Once a basic script is decided, students have concentrated on rehearsing, with only minor changes to their script.
  • Time limits and participation equality have been respected.
  • Focus language has been used appropriately.
  • The scene was well-organized and entertaining.

Critical writing rubrics

Assessment values for writing might include a tick-off list of number of deviations from your expectations. For example, you may want to assess grammar as: 1 or less errors = excellent; 2 to 3 errors = good; 4 or more = needs work.

Analytic composition/grammar/communication of ideas rubric

  • Main ideas: The student has correctly identified the main idea and discussed the pros and cons involved.
  • Composition: The student has used the basic essay format taught in class: introduction, development, conclusion, with appropriate paragraph structure and formatting.
  • Coherence: Ideas have been presented in a logical fashion, using transitional words and devices previously taught in class, without reverting to simple “and” and “but” use.
  • Vocabulary: Words have been correctly used (including word form) and repetition has been limited.
  • Grammar: Basic, previously learned sentence structure has been used, while newly taught focus structure has been appropriately included in the writing.

Holistic comprehension/analysis/explanation rubric

  • The student has understood and applied teacher instructions fully in composing the essay.
  • Source material has been understood and appropriately cited and addressed in the essay.
  • Basic composition/grammar/punctuation rules have been respected; handwriting is clear and easy to read.
  • The student has communicated his/her ideas or opinions clearly and persuasively.

Behavior rubric

Behavior is something we usually overlook until inappropriate behavior gets in the way of a pleasant and organized classroom. The best assessment values for behavior usually look like the “three strikes you’re out” baseball rule or the “yellow card/red card” rules of soccer.

Analytic “does homework/arrives on time/respects peers” rubric

  • The student presents neatly done homework when due.
  • The student is punctual for class.
  • The student follows classroom rules: having materials, raising hand to speak, etc.
  • The student is respectful and helpful to his/her peers during class.
  • The student actively and willingly participates in all classroom activities.

Holistic classroom behavior analysis rubric

  • Classroom rules are understood and followed.
  • Activities are enjoyed and actively carried out by all.
  • Self and group evaluations are constructive.
  • A positive attitude is shared by students and teacher for learning.

 

Rubrics can be the key to effective assessment of your students, making your job as a teacher much easier, since you’ll know from the outset what you’re looking for and can easily identify whether or not students have met expectations stemming from your objectives as a teacher.

They also become an active self-assessment and teaching tool when they’re shared with your students and you encourage them to use them on a regular basis. Students appreciate knowing what’s expected of them and are open and encouraged by the recognition, both by the teacher and by their peers, that they have achieved those goals.


Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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