What are the key characteristics of Assessment for learning?

What are the key characteristics of Assessment for learning?

Assessment for learning is a key element of teaching if you want your students to improve. As we said before Assessment for learning is aimed at helping you with your planning after you have identified your students’ strengths, weaknesses, their needs, their motivation and their learning styles. You will find in this article some useful steps to implement AFL.

A. Sharing learning objectives with students

At the beginning of every lesson you should share the teaching-learning objectives with your students so that they know what they are supposed to be able to achieve by the end of the lesson. I like to have general objectives displayed during the whole lesson at the top left corner of my board so that I can refer to them any time during the lesson. However I also have a set of differentiated objectives on what I called a SMART setting slide that is a Self-Target-Setting slide where students choose their targets according to their levels and abilities. These objectives targets will then be reviewed at the end of the lesson during the plenary. You will use these objectives for questioning and feedback. For example: “What were the objectives today? Have you reached your target? Which activity has helped you most?”

 

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B. Developing students’ awareness about their aims and the standards

Not only is it important to define the objectives of the lesson with your students, it is also crucial to explain to them how they will meet these objectives. Students need to be aware of the type of criteria that will allow them to achieve their targets. If you are expecting your students to write a long piece of extended writing you need to model and demonstrate what you are expecting by showing them an example of this writing. Once they have produced their piece of work you may want to use these as examples and why not as displays to show others the expectations.

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C. Involve your students in their learning

They need to know that they are responsible for their learning and progress. Consequently they need to be given opportunities to talk about their targets, the activities in the lesson and they should be able to express themselves about any point they have found difficult. For this reason you should always allow five minutes at least at the end of your lesson to review the objectives and ask them which activity was helpful for them and which activity they found difficult. We often rush at the end of our lessons but these five minutes thinking time where students reflect on their work is important so that they can decide of the next step for their learning.

D. Constructive feedback

Every type of feedback is valuable to motivate our learners to improve. Whether written or oral feedback, these comments will help students acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and will help them to identify which steps they need to take to improve. These feedbacks however need to tell what was done well by the students but it should also explain to them how it could have been even better. Feedback have to point out on the positive side of learning to develop students’ self confidence and self-esteem as consent negative feedback can be damaging for learning and they can even have a bigger impact on the long-term on students’ personality.

E. Reflection for improvement

At the end of unit or term when we give our students some assessment tasks, students need to be clear on what skills are going to be assessed and they need to know the criteria against which they are going to get assessed. After the exam, reflection again is vital to decide on the future steps both for students and teachers. Both need to understand what went well in the teaching-learning process and what could be improved and how.

Assessment of learning vs. Assessment for learning

Assessment of learning vs. Assessment for learning

When we talk about assessment we usually have in minds targets and grades. However the notion of assessment is wider than this and some clarifications may be needed before we go deeper into the topic. First of all we shouldn’t get confused between formative assessment also called assessment for learning and summative assessment also called assessment of learning.

Assessment for learning is when teachers use pieces of evidence about their students’ ability

Assessment for learning is when teachers use pieces of evidence about their students’ ability, knowledge, prior knowledge, understanding, learning styles to inform their planning. This type of assessment is used during teaching to improve students’ results and understanding. By using this teachers adapt their teaching to their students’ needs. It is aimed at helping students to learn better on the long run by using teaching methods that are in line with students’ abilities and needs. It may involve informal and formal assessment activities to inform our planning. This type of assessment is aimed at leading to students’ improvement through the use of positive and effective feedback. With assessment for learning students play an active part in their learning through self and peer-assessment that should develop their confidence and encourage them to do better.

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When we talk about Assessment of learning we talk about evidence we use as teachers to assess progress and achievements. Following clear predefined standards we assess students on their knowledge. Usually this type of assessment occurs at the end of a unit, chapter, term, or semester and usually it is used to give students grades and a ranking. The use of Assessment of learning is widely spread to ensure continuity in learning and it is a way for teachers to formally assess the knowledge acquired by recording students’ grades.

How to teach grammar: some methods and techniques (Part – 2)

How to teach grammar: some methods and techniques (Part – 2)

As we said previously there is no such way to teach grammar but to embed it in real context and to find a way to make it fun. Songs, stories and games are great tools for that purpose.

  • Songs

Repetition is key to mastering grammar as it helps the brain remembering patterns. Using songs is therefore a wonderful tool to practice grammar. Music conveys feelings, emotions and by singing the lyrics students learn a lot without even noticing it. You need to choose your song carefully according to what you want to teach. If you want to work on the daily routine and the present tense for ESL students, Aretha Franklin’s “I say a little prayer for you” may be the one you are looking for. If you are working with more advanced students on regrets using modals and present perfect you may use Bruno Mars’ “When I was your man” for instance.  Have a worksheet ready to give to your students. Depending on the level of your class you may have a filling gap activity, a matching up or lyrics to reorder. Wait before you hand out the worksheet; get your students to listen to the beat, to sing if they know the song. Only then do you give them the worksheet. After that you can quiz them on the tense used in the song. You could even try to change the tense and to have your students to sing! Songs are usually great fun and a wonderful way to practice grammar while avoiding boredom.

  • Games

Playing games makes learning easier. Whatever the level, ability or age students absolutely love playing games. Games have a strong motivational impact on learning and if you can instill some competition that is even better to stimulate your students’ minds. Not only will games stimulate your students it will also create and reinforce a feeling of community. Playing helps to develop social skills and therefore it has a double purpose in lessons. Using games will allow your students to use grammar in a real communicative context and by practising they will internalize the grammatical rules. You have a wide variety of games available depending on what you want to teach your students. Board races, card games, dice games, memorizing games, scrabble, bingo, role plays, gap-fill information tasks, detective games among others can be used to reinforce the use of language.

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Usually games are used in the class as warm-ups or plenaries. However games could be given a greater place.(Lee, 1979; Rixon, 1981, Uberman, 1998). In the PPP framework for lesson planning (Mauer, 1997), games can be either for practicing specific grammar points to develop a more communicative language production. It goes without saying that teachers can also games as a way to revise prior knowledge.

Games have a strong motivational impact on learning and if you can instill some competition that is even better to stimulate your students’ minds

Playing games in a language classroom, though extremely useful as we mentioned previously, can be a little tricky if you skip some essential steps: First of all you need to understand how to play it. Then you need to demonstrate to your students how to play it. You may want at that point to demonstrate yourself or to ask some students to demonstrate for the rest of the class. Then make sure that they understand the point of it. Depending on the level and ability of your class, you may have some visual support for them to remind them of the grammatical point that they are about to practise. Then let them start and monitor their production! Fun and learning should be at the corner.

  • Story telling

We wrongly tend to believe that story telling is only valuable for children. As adults we keep on telling stories all the time: We tell our colleagues about our weekend, we tell jokes to our friends, we tell our families about the way we spent our day, we tell about the latest movie etc. Story telling is an efficient technique to bring grammar to our students in an authentic way. We may use pictures as stimuli to have them imagine the background of the story or predict what is going to happen, jokes they will share among each others, stories cut down in puzzles to reorder or even videos. Whatever the type of activity you chose don’t underestimate this tool that can allow introducing a grammar point or review some previously taught language.

How to teach grammar: some methods and techniques (Part – 1)

How to teach grammar: some methods and techniques (Part – 1)

As a linguist I personally have developed a genuine passion for grammar but let’s face it, most of us as teachers despise grammar just the way our students do. Even if we know grammatical rules it doesn’t mean that we possess the skills to transmit this knowledge so that our students apply them in a real context.

Teaching by the book is outdated for our non-stop Internet addicted students. Students want to learn how to express themselves in English and they want it fast. If an app to easily learn grammar existed they would probably have downloaded it. What our role is as teachers is to adapt the grammatical concepts to our students’ needs and motivation. Here are some steps to follow to ensure you will avoid boredom in your classroom while teaching grammar.

  • Grammar in context

If you don’t want to bore your students to death avoid at all cost teaching a lesson on grammar. You need to plan your lesson carefully to embed your grammar point. First of all, prepare your students to the grammar point by writing the grammatical objectives on the board, then have a starter ready to review some previous knowledge of your students that will be meaningful for your grammatical point.

No matter how we feel about some grammatical points we need to be role models for our students.

Let’s say you want to introduce the use of the imperative form you should choose a topic that your students are already confident with for example “At the doctor”. Assuming that they already know the vocabulary related to sickness you should then be able to introduce them to advice giving. You could have for example some matching up between the type of sickness and advice. Instead of eliciting the grammar straight away have them to pair-think-share about the grammatical structures by finding similarities between the different types of advice. Students can formulate their ideas independently and you are just guiding them towards the grammatical point.

Your objectives are reached: You have a real communication context and you have embedded grammar within your lesson plan while basing this on your students’ prior knowledge.

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Different approaches are possible. After having read an article, a website, a letter, any real document have your students to answer some questions to ensure understanding. After that, depending on your grammar point, have them to look for certain structures. For example if you are working on adjectives you can use a pen friend letter where the author describes his/her relationships with his/her family. After having reviewed the vocabulary in groups some may have to look for positive describing words (adjectives) and other ones for negative ones.

  • Love it and spread it

No matter how we feel about some grammatical points we need to be role models for our students. You will find out that students often mirror our reactions and to our certain extent our feelings. If you are not confident about teaching some grammatical points or if you just don’t like teaching them, you still can use this as a powerful tool. You may play the devil’s advocate pretending how much you like this specific grammar point and how much you know about it. Have a set fun activities ready to use like a bingo with tenses, a ball game to practice prepositional verbs, a taboo with forbidden words but pretend that your students are maybe not ready enough to enjoy playing these activities. Your students should feel intrigued and may want to know more about them. With games, you will create a playful and vivid classroom atmosphere with students ready to follow you wherever you want to take them.

What is grammar, an explanation

What is grammar, an explanation

Whether deductive or inductive, grammar is a wide topic that we as teachers are concerned with for pedagogical purposes. The main question we should ask ourselves is how to teach grammar so that our students can learn, improve their language skills and use the language adequately in a real communication situation.

Richard Nordquist has written an excellent article explaining what is grammar.

To make things simple and understandable to all: Grammar is the study of elements that compose a sentence. In other words grammar is the analysis of words which, put together according to certain rules and conventions, create meaningful units that we call sentences. Grammar goes of course beyond this definition but this could be a good definition to give to our students before they are ready to develop a more structured grasp of the notion of grammar.

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Using grammatical tools and their actual terminology will help to shape the thinking skills of your learners

Teaching grammar can be intimidating especially when we don’t know where to start and if we are not sure whether to use the adequate terminology or if we consider metalanguage as an extra burden for our students. Some researches tend to prove however that teaching grammatical terms can be useful to develop our learners’ cognitive abilities.

Using grammatical tools and their actual terminology will help to shape the thinking skills of your learners and not only will they be able to use their knowledge of grammar in a foreign lesson, they will also be able to transfer this knowledge to their own mother tongue and to the learning of other languages. Deciding whether to use the full terminology from an early stage is debatable considering especially that our students may be reluctant to learn grammar because of the perception they have of it.

Some suggestions would be to embed the technical language when teaching grammar or when reading a text so that students understand the links between real use of language in texts and the importance of grammatical concepts to develop an awareness of the language. It is also valuable to let our learners formulate in their own words the use of language to better integrate the grammatical notions without forgetting however that at some point they will have to integrate and use the commonly agreed technical technology to describe the language.

What is grammar? An introduction

What is grammar? An introduction

There is no teaching without grammar. Grammar is key to the teaching-learning process in languages. We all know that but it doesn´t make it easier.First of all many stereotypes have been linked to grammar. How many students complain about the intricacies of grammar and all the boredom it brings? How many teachers dread teaching grammar because it’s difficult?

For many years language teachers have apologized for teaching grammar to their students. As Eric Hawkins pointed out: Teachers of languages, both foreign languages and mother tongue have allowed themselves to be manoeuvred into apologizing for mentioning grammar, as a word to be ashamed of. It is not easy to reverse such an attitude. (Hawkins 1984)

Communicative approaches have stressed the importance of having fun in classes while excluding the use of grammar.

We tend to associate the word “grammar” to fixed rules and forms that compose the language. We may also have the tendency to believe that we have to teach the “correct” grammar while forgetting that communication is not just a set of rules but it is something that evolves and is not necessarily the grammar we will hear in spoken language. Teaching grammar just as a set of rules to learn is pointless in most cases. As a teacher you will find out that focusing on grammar through explanation and sets of practical exercises will just create an army of students ready to complete any type of grammar exercises while at the same time they will be quite unable to use this grammar in practical situations.

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Does this mean that we should avoid teaching grammar?Many recent theories and researches have put in light the fact that language acquisition should be something natural. Therefore many language teachers tend not to teach grammar at all under the assumption that students will learn their second language the same they learned their mother tongue. In other words the use and teaching of grammar is seen as a brake in this type of teaching. Communicative approaches have stressed the importance of having fun in classes while excluding the use of grammar. What we tend to forget with these methods is that our students are not immersed 100% into the second language so they will not have the opportunity to practise their use of language as if it were their first language.

So should we avoid teaching grammar? The answer is a resounding “No”. We need to try to get a different perception of it to embed it in every day’s reality.

Finding a balance between these two theories may find its roots in an approach that allows some teaching of grammar so that students can use it in real communicative tasks. Grammar should be seen as a powerful tool that will help students not only to understand their second languages but that should help them as well to understand their own language and to a certain extent themselves. From day one in our lessons we need to show our students that grammar is not only a powerful tool but that it can also be interesting and fun.