Evaluating Literary Skills through Essays, Literature Projects, Portfolios, Self-Assessment and Webpages

Any form of teaching has been and will continue to be realated to a form of assessment in all types of academic contexts. However, if in the past the evaluation of the learners used to use mainly summative testing tools which caused a lot of anxiety, today’s assessors use more humanistic, student-centered approaches to identify the students’ abilities, level and achievement in a more formative way. As a result, by using the latest methods and strategies, the assessing authorities and  institutions can benefit the advantages of a more objective, relevant and extensive evaluation: ”Assessment tools and procedures, in addition to being essential for evaluating students’ progress and achievement, also help in evaluating the suitability and effectiveness of the curriculum, the teaching methodology, and the instructional materials.”

Alternative assessment in English literature classroom should be based mainly on tasks and not tests, aiming at measuring students’ performance or progress in terms of both the ”process” and the ”final product” and by following clear assessment objectives to prevent inconsistencies and subjectivity.

The Assessment Objectives common to all Exam Boards are available in Steven Croft and Helen Cross’ “Literature, Criticism and Style” with the specification that everything is done in the study of English literature “will relate directly to these objectives.” Here are the five main objectives provided by the authors and recommended to be taken into account at A-level:
“1. communicate clearly the knowledge, understanding and insight appropriate to literary study, using appropriate terminology and accurate and coherent written expression;
2. respond with knowledge and understanding to literary texts of different types and periods, exploring and commenting on relationships and comparisons between literary texts;
3. show detailed understanding of the ways in which writers’ choices of form, structure and language shape meanings;
4. articulate independent opinions and judgements, informed by different interpretations of literary texts by other readers;
5. evaluate the significance of cultural, historical and other contextual influences on literary texts and study.”

In “Growing Up with English”, the author, Janet K. Orr, states that “assessment of reading should be multidimensional with a focus on comprehension.” Following this advice, this article will discuss five alternative means of evaluation which I consider to be most appropriate inside the literature classroom: the essay, the literature project, the portfolio, self-assessment and the web page.

Essays are generally understood as a very common form of written assessment, a great amount of attention being paid to “model” compositions whose evaluation applies criteria that include content, organization, vocabulary and grammatical use as well as spelling and punctuation.

If in the past teachers used to focus more on the final product of writing, “the new emphasis on process writing , however, must be seen in the perspective of a balance between process and product.”  It is interesting to mention that this “new” perspective is not so new as, among the critics who first recognized the blessings of the “creative” process,  was Peter Elbow in his book entitled “Writing Without Teachers” first published almost 50 yeas ago, in 1973:

“What looks inefficient – a rambling process with lots of writing and lots of throwing away is really efficient since it’s the best way you can work up what you really want to say and how to say it” . Without diminishing the importance of the final product, the author draws our attention to the writing stages generally known as: prewriting, drafting, revising and editing.

It can truly be stated that essay writing is hard work, but essay evaluation is not an easy task either. The essay evaluator has to follow the same pattern and “measure” how well the thesis is defined, the strength and relevance of arguments, the vividness of examples, the internal logic and organization, the clarity, accuracy and originality of style as well as punctuation and research work.

The literary project method is usually a group work response to a literary text developed inside and outside the classroom over a period of time. This type of activity is less teacher- controlled and involves a lot student management of the learning process: “Project work goes hand- in- hand with another suggested approach, student-centered learning” as “when students work together on substantive projects, they gain experience in developing their own learning goals.”

This means that the teacher continues to assume an active role but, only to shape the instruction in accordance with the student’s needs and interests, up-dating the curriculum to match the latest social and educational requirements. Preparing a literature project by the students is an intellectually demanding but stimulating educational experience which involves exploration of resources, selection and organization of information, negotiation, decision-making and also illustration and presentation skills.

Nevertheless, with studens who are less familiar with this learning and assessment method, the task may be designed and clearly presented by the teacher who will also monitor the activities . It is useful for the students to be shown the steps they have to follow when their lack of experience may affect their interest and motivation. In her book ”Metodica predarii limbii engleze: strategies of teaching and testing English as a foreign language”, Adriana Vizental recommends a “literature project” in which the students are asked to perform the following eight tasks related to a novel they have read in English:
1. Summarize the novel in no more than 100 words;
2. Make a brief character portrayal for three of the protagonists;
3. Describe briefly one of the moments in the novel that impressed you;
4. Describe briefly one of the moments in the novel that you consider artificial or unlikely to happen;
5. Describe a passage in which one of the characters behaved very wisely; say why you consider (s)he did the right thing;
6. Describe a passage in which one of the characters behaved unwisely;say what you would have done in his/her place;
7. Comment on the end of the novel;
8. Give a different ending to the novel; argument your decision.

Literature project assessment can also be student and/or teacher driven. Progress will be measured in accordance with the project goals and the achievement of these goals will be assessed in the final product. What is more, projects involve many cross-curricular activities and also real world capabilities such as the use of technology, investigative work, collaborative learning and management skills which make them very effective and functional tools in today’s society.

Portfolios are personal collections of student work recording evidence of his/her growth and development in a certain area of the curriculum. However, “to analizyze the contents of the portfolio, performance objectives must be delineated .”  This means that, even if the students apply their own subjective criteria for content selection, the teachers will assume objective criteria for assessing portfolios.
In an article entitled “Assessment of Young Learners” Kassim Shaaban defines the portfolio  as “a systematic collection of a student’s work” meant “to trace a student’s progress over a time” . The same author considers that “if implemented clearly and systematically”,  portfolios have at least three advantages which the traditional forms of assessment don’t: ”they provide the teacher with a detailed picture of a student’s language performance in a variety of different tasks”, “they can enhance student’s self-image as they participate in the decisions about content  and can help them identify their strengths and weaknesses in the target language” and  “they integrate teaching and assessment in a continuous process.”

Portfolios of  literature may contain a variety of materials: writing samples (such as book reports, novel summaries, character descriptions, entries made in journals, correspondence about the topic, notes, favourite quotations, personal translations etc.) and oral work (audiotaped and videotaped recordings), as well as self-assessment checklists and samples of the tests and quizzes performed by the students.

In “Evaluating Children’s Writings”, Suzanne Bratcher enumerates a few advantages of deciding to use portfolios in the evaluation process. According to the author, portfolios can dramatically decrease the pressure of grades on students, thus providing an environment conducive to risk-taking and real learning, they can allow students to participate in the grading process by choosing which pieces they wish to have graded, they can decrease the pressure of grades on the teacher as well because grading occurs much less frequently and they can make an excellent focus for both student and parent conferences.

Self-Assessment is a valuable tool as it implies that an individual is aware of his/her strengths (which means that he/she will manage to make the best use of his/her knowledge,  values and skills) and also of his/her weaknesses (which makes these weaknesses easier to deal with and to improve). Not only the teachers, but also the students can and make judgements about their own work, their peers’ and also about the grades they receive. So, why not make it official and allow the students to discover themselves and address their own needs?

Self-assessment types of assignments help the students measure their understanding of a certain topic, the improvements in the learning process providing, in one word, feedback about the level of performance. Typical self-assessment activities may include quizzes, questionnaires, fill-in-the-blank, true/false and/or multiple choice questions etc.

Webpages or Web projects involve many positive implications in terms of world-wide audience, accessibility, visibility, interactivity etc. not to mention the relatively cost-free possibilities and the sense of worth and satisfaction experienced by the learners: “Creating and exchanging texts and multimedia documents with people all over the world is an act of wonder. Today’s teachers are the first in human history to have the power to do these things. By helping students create and publish their own Web pages – wheter their pages consist of just a few paragraphs of text or of sophisticated multimedia presentations – we as teachers are empowering learners to develop new ways to find and express a personal voice.”

However, before attempting to have a Web page available on the Internet, the students should be informed about the existence of the intellectual property rights and copyright legislation and also about plagiarism. In this way, they will become aware of the negative consequences of breaking these regulations and will not be tempted to steal information from various sources and pretend authorship.
To conclude with, all these methods introduced above create an intersection between instruction and assessment, encouraging student reflection, creativity and autonomy and making the literature classroom a much friendlier environment.

• Brown, Douglas H. , Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy, Prentice Hall Regents, 1994
• Croft, Steven, and Cross, Helen , Literature, Criticism and Style, Oxford University Press, 2000
• Elbow, Peter, Writing Without Teachers, Oxford University Press, 1973
• Orr, K. Janet , Growing Up with English,The Office of English Language Programs, 2006
• Shaaban, Kassim, Assessment of Young Learners in Forum, vol. 41, no.1, 2005
• Vizental, Adriana, Metodica predarii limbii engleze: strategies of teaching and testing English as a foreign language”, Polirom, Iasi, 2008
• Warschauer,  M., Shetzer, H. and Meloni, C., Internet for English Teaching, United States Department of State, 2004.


prof. Claudia-Emilia Frînculeasă

Liceul Teoretic Radu Vlădescu, Pătârlagele (Buzău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/claudia.frinculeasa

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