Alternative Strategies of Evaluation in the English Classes

“Our knowledge is made up of the stories  we can tell…where we can tell no story, we have no knowledge.”( Mitchel : 1979, p 34). One can say that alternative assessment has the power to tell a story. Contrary to traditional testing, which typically provides just a set of numbers, alternative assessment documents a story for every student. All the information that the teacher gathers about a student’s development through the various samples and products collected help him/her write chapter after chapter of this story. In this way, the teacher comes to really know his/her students’ background, interests, motivations and goals, is able to determine their strengths and weaknesses and therefore, is able to efficiently guide the students’ journey in  the amazing world of learning.

Because alternative assessment asks students to show what they can do, the teacher evaluates students on what they integrate and produce. The basis for alternative assessment are the classroom activities in which students are engaged in order to demonstrate how they apply their knowledge and skills under the direct observation of the teacher (performance-based tasks) or in order to obtain a product (product-based tasks) or in order to give insight into their thinking, reasoning and motivation.

The teacher should design and administer the process of assessment in such a way so that it could turn into a pleasant ingredient of the instructional process. It is a well- known fact that students, especially the high school ones, strive more to do their best when they like the activities the teacher asks them to take part in. They need to be motivated, to have a reason to speak, for, to be offered the possibility to choose and to express what they know in a multitude of ways, according to their personalities, abilities and, of course,  knowledge and language proficiency. The ideal situation is that in which the students are unaware of any kind of assessment taking place due to the informal and relaxed environment. Only in this way students behave naturally and the teacher can grasp what they really have learned and what they are able to do with it. The English teacher has a wide range of possibilities to improve the practice of testing and he/she can start doing that by creating an interactive environment during the English classes. By choosing free-techniques such as: discussions, debates, role-plays, simulations, dramas, problem-solving, interviews, reports and compositions, the teacher can obtain a climate in which spontaneity and freedom of expression prevail and the teacher-assessor can largely exploit.

Discussion is the most natural and effective way for students to practise talking freely in English and it can be sucessfully used to assess students.

Especially in high school English classes, from the intermediate level to the advanced and super-advanced level, discussion exercises play a very important role, either they are carried out in the full class forum, in small groups or pairs. Without students knowing it, the teacher should pay attention to their answers, taking into account not only accuracy, but fluency, stress, vocabulary, grammar, body language, etc. and write down on a card notes related to the students assessed. Speaking about error correction, the teacher should note down the most serious mistakes (pronunciation, grammar or other kind of mistakes) and come back later to them-for example in an activity dedicated to language accuracy. But simple discussion exercises can take many other forms, providing the teacher the possibility to assess different other things. They may ask to the whole class to discuss a certain situation from a text they have just read and imagine other solutions (for text comprehension), to discuss about different ways of applying something in their own life, to have a discussion starting from a quote or an image, etc. Other speaking activities require students to discuss with the partner in order to fulfill a task (completing a chart, making a survey) or to have group discussions (brainstorming effect) in order to solve a problem: to create a quizz for example.

Role-play is another sort of activity which can be widely used in the classroom for assessing. For this activity, the students are divided into small groups or pairs and they are given situations and roles to act out and explore. The situations are similar to those from real life, and in this way students are given the opportunity to practise in the language they may need outside the classroom. The roles can be real or imaginary – they can be children or parents, positive or negative characters from movies or books, happy or sad, calm or furious, etc. – and the acting requires students’ imagination and spontaneity. It is perceived as a very interesting and engaging activity: the students, even those to find it difficult to speak in front of the class or the teacher, are encouraged to speak ‘freely’ from behind the mask.

When used for continuous assessment, the role-play can help the teacher to test the following aspects:  speaking and listening proficiency, vocabulary related to describing places (for example: architecture, cathedral, the main street, trading importance, cultural centre, Gothic style, etc.), use of passive voice or past tenses, language functions: asking for and offering information, explaining, general knowledge, creativity and spontaneity, use of paralanguage in order to achieve communicative means (tone of voice, intonation, gestures, mimicry) and, of course, participation (who chooses to be the guide/ tourists, degree of involvement). Teacher should avoid letting students spend too much time preparing for the role-play; if they speak spontaneously and react to something unexpected, testing becomes more valid and reliable. While the activity is taking place, the teacher should walk round the class from group to group, just paying attention to the activity of the students chosen for assessment.

Simulations can also be used during the English classes. Students are required to act out the model  dialogue from memory and to create a similar one. Simulation is often a problem-solving activity in which students are invited to involve with all their life experience, personality and try to be credible and authentical. It implies being oneself or somebodyelse in a simulated real-life situation. For example, at intermediate level, students (divided in groups of five),  may be given the following situation: Five  people have seen a masked man stealing from a shop and describe him to a police inspector who has to build an ‘identikit’ picture. Group work:   One student in each group of five will be the police inspector who should question the other students (witnesses) about what they saw and then fill in the identikit form and draw a picture of the thief. This activity offers the possibility to test speaking, listening comprehension, certain grammar problems (use of verbal tenses, sequence of   tenses, passive voice, degrees of comparaison of the adjectives), language of describing, general knowledge, originality, spontaneity, effort, power of persuasion, involvement and participation.

While using improvisations, students are given the roles and the situations on the spot and they do not have time to rehearse or to prepare their ‘role’. They must react immediately, using whatever they know, according to the situation, to the others’ reactions, to their own intuition, creativity and wishes. They should be receptive, funny, spontaneous and to accept to work with other people. Improvisations must have a purpose, a problem to solve for the group and various topics.

Generally speaking, games are used as “starters” or “icebreakers” in order to relax the students, to introduce them into the topic of the lesson or to stir their interest or during the lesson, in order to reinforce previously taught material or to revise something or even at the end of the lesson in order to offer students a moment of relaxation after a more difficult exercise. But the game can be adapted to any language the teacher wants to have practised (for modal verbs, frequency adverbs, forms of the verb, etc.). The game provides a lot of language practice, it is amusing and challenging and offers the teacher the opportunity to consolidate and assess the newly acquired structures – the basic question forms -in conversation. Moreover, he/she can assess students’ speaking, listening – comprehension, vocabulary, general knowledge,  ability to work in a team,  spirit of competition and participation. Other communication games are based on the principle of the information – gap (jig-saw games). The teacher gives each student or group of students only part of the information they need in order to fulfill a task (He/she can use pictures, cards, etc.).  They are required to ask questions in order to find out other pieces of the puzzle and to answer the others’ questions related to the information they have. Everything is unpredictable and such situations help the teacher to assess as many facets of the students as he/she wants.

At more advanced level, the English teacher should start preparing his/her students for their oral examination at Baccalaureat and other exams. This can be done in a systematic way in order to offer the students the necessary skills and criteria for oral presentations. First of all the students should get familiar with the criteria for effective presentations and asked to internalize them in order to be able to monitor and evaluate their own and their colleagues’ oral productions. They should be taught about content-related criteria (relevance of ideas to topic, overall coherence, lexical range, register), organization-related criteria, clear signposting, emphasizing key points, summarizing and concluding, length) and delivery-related criteria (clarity and pronunciation, stress and intonation, volume, pace, body language, eye contact, manner). The topics should be varied, interesting, related to different fields of activity so that the students could turn into account their general knowledge.

Oral presentations can be also used by the high school teacher in order to assess, by means of direct observation, students’ originality, attitude towards different principles, values or ideas, effort and confidence in speaking in front of a public. When oferring feedback to the students who delivered a speech, the teacher should highlight the strengths of the performance, because positive feedback build students’ self-confidence and self-esteem. When giving a negative feedback, the teacher should mention that his/her comments refer only to a particular task or part of the task, not to the student as a person. Students may be invited to suggest themselves topics for presentations/ speeches, giving them the chance to show what they are interested about and to demonstrate their general knowledge. When evaluating students’ performance, the teacher should take into account the students’ self-evaluation, but also their classmates’ evaluation. By evaluating themselves and others, students become aware of what the teacher asks from them and how well they achieve the established goals.

Portfolio assessment can evaluate students holistically, based on the content of the portfolio on which the teacher and students agree. In the English classes, the portfolio can be used as a systematic collection of a student‟s work that meant to show progress over a given period of time – a semester or a year. The specific focus of the portfolio can be on oral or written language skills or on content area skills. The end-of year portfolio focused on writing and reading skills is often used in high school English classes as a basis for grades and in order to monitor the students’ progress. It can contain: formal and informal assessments collected during the year, various handouts, essays, reading logs, literature response logs, genre appreciations, their contribution to the school magazine, posters, collages, drawings, caricatures, etc. Other portfolios can focus on speaking and listening and in this case the items to be included are tapes, CDs and video records of students‟ oral performances: conversations, interviews, discussions, role-playing assessment, presentations, reading, etc.

Teachers may suggest the e-portfolio system, which would be more confortable to handle with.. Moreover, with web-portfolio they would deal with various skills that seem to be an integral part of the modern education such as: word processing, mail, Internet search, chatting and interacting with their teacher and colleagues through different media.

Another alternative strategy largely used in the English classes is the project used not only to teach and ask students to practise the language, but to turn it into an opportunity for self-evaluation and a chance of learning from and about the students. This activity and alternative strategy of evaluation can be applied at any level and it represents one of the most pleasant tasks in the English classes, since students are aware of the fact that it gives them the possibility to show everything they know to do with English, with their general knowledge and abilities. For the high school students, the project is a chance to prove–by means of English and other non-verbal means- how complex personalities they have.

Both process and product are important, students learn while doing something with the language, co-operation and teamwork are promoted and all the students are involved, each having his/her contribution.. The final product is assessed according to the criteria established from the beginning of the project and which are very well known by the students: the validity of the project or the extent to which it is relevant for the topic, the completeness of the project (the way in which the students combined cross-curricular perspectives, theoretical and practical abilities in order to develop the content) the structure of the project( accuracy and fluency of ideas, quality of arguments, internal coherence, correctness of conclusions) the quality of the materials used and creativity. Aspects such as: their work level performance, the documentation, the level of elaboration and communication, the mistakes, the creativity and the quality of the results should also be taken into account.

Being nonintrusive, reflecting the curriculum and consisting of collecting data based on real-life tasks, alternative assessment represents an essential part of the learning process. Each of these alternative strategies has advantages and disadvantages; moreover, the same strategy can be successfully applied to a group of students, but it may be totally inappropriate for another group or class. One should say that the teacher cannot resort only to alternative strategies since they require a lot of time and effort from the part of both teacher and students. He/she should be realistic and  try to skillfully combine what is traditional with what is modern in perfect agreement with what he/she wants to do in the classroom, his/her students’ personalities and proficiency level and, why not, according to his/her tastes, skills and creativity.

I consider that foreign language teachers are extremely lucky because foreign language classes offer infinite opportunities to teach and evaluate their students in such a way that  school become the place where the students discover and learn a lot of useful things for life, but first of all a place where they discover themselves as they are and as they can become.

Bibliography
1. Hamayan, E.V. “Approaches to Alternative Assessment” in Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 15, 1995.
2. Hancock, Charles R. “Alternative Assessment and Second Language Study: What and Why?”, ERIC Digest: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1994.
3. Hill, W.F. (2002) Learning: A survey of psychological interpretation (7th ed), Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA.
4. Jordan, A., Carlile, O., & Stack, A. (2008). Approaches to learning: A guide for teachers. McGraw-Hill, Open University Press: Berkshire.
5. Marzano, R. P., D. Pickering & J. G. McTighe. Assessing student outcomes: Performance Assessment using the Dimensions of Learning model. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ,1993.
6.  Mitchel, R.,Less than Words Can Say, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979, p 34.
7. Morrow, K. Assessment in Language Learning. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1983.
8. Oscarson, M. Self-Assessment of Foreign Language Skills: A Survey of Research and Development Work, Strasbourgh: Council of Europe, 1984.
9. Patton, M.Q. Creative Evaluation. Newbury

 

prof. Oana Amariei-Hondrea

Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/oana.amarieihondrea

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