Why do teachers assess English the way they do?

I’ve been based in Slovenia for a few years now and regularly come across examples of how English is assessed in primary schools. I don’t know with empirical certainty how typical what I see is but I’m tempted to believe that it is simply because the same kinds of test items and approaches to marking keep on appearing. Here’s one example.

In it’s favour, the exercise uses a visual to stimulate a response. But what’s frustrating is the severity with which it is marked; numbers 2 and 3 were awarded 0 marks because of spelling mistakes while, if we accept one/a as possible alternatives, the half mark deducted on the final item also seems severe.  The fifth item also received 0, but this is justified given the grammar and spelling mistakes. My overall reaction to this example is that the marking is excessively harsh.

Here’s another one:

It’s useful for students to know the names of cities and countries in English. But this exercise is as much a test of general knowledge as it is of English. And again, while the student left a) and d) blank (the teacher filled these in while marking), the teacher’s decision not to award anything for b (‘Japan’) is harsh.

One final example:

This exercise required students to complete the sentences with a possessive adjective. I’m interested in items b, f and g. These were all marked wrong but one can imagine contexts where they would be meaningful and are not technically grammatically incorrect. The problem here is poor test design (lack of clear context) and the teacher not considering anything beyond the obvious answers.

I’m not suggesting that form-focused exercises which reward accuracy are not of value – of course they have a role to play. But it is problematic when these are the recurrent exercises students encounter in tests. Decontextualised examples, assessing general knowledge, harsh marking, and not rewarding unusual but grammatically correct answers all add to this problematic situation. Learning English is thus reduced to knowing how to complete discrete-item exercises of this kind. Such items are most obvious in written tests, but a fair amount of oral testing also takes place and I’ve heard of cases where primary school students are, for example, asked to explain (in their own language) when the present continuous or some other grammatical form is used. English tests can thus become an opportunity not for students to show what they know but for teachers to highlight what children do not. This whole approach to testing seems patently wrong to me (for one it puts children off English), so I am left with several questions:

  • Why do teachers test their students in this way?
  • Is it because they genuinely believe that accuracy and explicit grammatical knowledge are what primary students need most?
  • What levels of assessment literacy do primary school teachers of English have? The British Council’s Teacher Assessment Literacy project may be useful here, including the video on assessing young learners.
  • What  other factors shape teachers’ assessment practices? (for a list, see an earlier blog on teaching grammar)?
  • How common are the above approaches to the classroom testing of English in Slovenia and in primary schools elsewhere?
  • How can teachers be encouraged to reflect on and review such practices?

It would be great to hear what primary school teachers of English in Slovenia think and to hear about experiences elsewhere too.

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Teachers, Research and Methodology Textbooks

I’ve just returned from the ELTRIA conference at the University of Barcelona on the theme of bridging the gap between research and practice. Scott Thornbury spoke there about an interesting line of inquiry he has initiated looking into how methodology textbook writers construct their texts. One particular issue he looked at (based on the sample of four authors that he interviewed) was the extent to which methodology authors draw on research and there were some interesting quotes on this issue. You can see the talk he gave at IATEFL 2017 on this topic here.

Thornbury’s starting point in his inquiry is the claim that teachers do not read research and this, as well as some aspects of his presentation, has generated much online commentary such as here and (quite critically) here.There has also been an interesting discussion of the topic on Thornbury’s blog at and I’ve added my own thoughts to that discussion.

How teachers engage (or don’t engage, rather) with published research is a topic I have discussed elsewhere, such as my blog here. My basic position remains that research (which is normally taken to mean academic research) is not written for teachers and teachers do not normally have access to it (even if they wanted to read it), so saying that most teachers do not read research is for me a factual comment and should never be a criticism. If we want ELT teachers to engage more with research, investment is needed to support the process of mediation through which accessible summaries of research are produced and made freely available to teachers. Even this would not resolve all of the challenges associated with teacher research engagement – teachers’ working conditions are often such that motivation for professional development is stifled and in other cases teachers will have more pressing needs, such as improving their English. However, the availability of accessible summaries of pedagogically-relevant research would I think go some way to addressing the continuing (though perfectly normal) gap between academic publications and what teachers do.

 

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The Impact of Action Research

To mark the publication of the reports from the 2015 cohort of teachers on the Cambridge English-English Action Research scheme, I wrote a short piece about action research that reflects on the work of these teachers. It has not appeared on-line yet, so here is a link to it:

AR – not just about ‘results’

One of my key conclusions here is that the main impact of action research is not the results it generates but “the kinds of professional reinvigoration and attitudinal realignment that will stay with teachers long after the formal conclusion of any particular action research scheme”.

If you’ve done or supported action research it would be interesting to hear your views.

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Long live grammar teaching (or ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’)

In the last 20 years, repeated messages in the literature about communicative and task-based approaches, and the uptake of these approaches in contemporary coursebooks, may have created the impression that a ‘modern’ approach to grammar teaching is now a universal norm. This is, though, rather fanciful. My suspicion is that in many classrooms around the world, grammar remains the driving force and the way it is taught has changed very little over the years. Even where teachers have modernised their approach to other areas of language teaching, such as reading or speaking, grammar has often remained impervious to change.

Let’s look at some examples. I recently spoke to some teachers who had completed a four-week methodology course which emphasised learner-centred, communicative and interactive strategies for language teaching. A few weeks after the course, the teachers explained that these ideas were influencing their lessons: for example, they were making more use of pair and group work, being less direct and more selective in their correction of spoken errors, and general trying to make lessons more enjoyable for the students. However, they also agreed that how they teach grammar – which as one them told me was ‘I explain to my students the grammar rules and then we do grammar exercises and different tests’ – had not really changed. Here’s a summary of a lesson plan from a teacher in this group which illustrates this approach in more detail.

The lesson aimed to help students learn the difference between the present perfect continuous and simple. The steps were: (a) Teacher presents the grammar, establishes the names of the verb forms and writes these on the board; (b) Teacher asks the students to use the grammar to describe the pictures on the board; (c) Teacher gives further explanations and writes detailed notes about each verb form on the board; (d) Teacher asks concept questions, for example, ‘Which of the 2 sentences is in the perfect simple and why?’; (e) Students complete a series of written and spoken activities individually, in pairs and in groups; (f) Students complete a translation exercise from their own language into English.

Here’s a second example from a different country (this also happens to be about the present perfect). In this case the students had to complete a gap-fill exercise by writing in the correct form of the given verbs. Here’s an example of the work one student produced:

grammar-1

In the light of arguments about the importance of teaching grammar in context, my reaction as I read these examples was to try to imagine situations in real life where such utterances might occur. I did eventually come up with some, but it does take some imagination. In the context where this example was used (and in many others I am sure) students are fed a steady diet of such gap-fills. I am not saying there is no place for such exercises; what I am saying is that they are over-used and that teachers are often unable to provide a clear rationale for them.

Here’s one final example. Have a look and think about it – my comments are below.

grammar-2

Once again, grammar is being practised without any larger meaningful context. But it was the first example that caught my attention. The saying is ‘the show is not [or it ain’t) over until the fat lady sings’ but in this case the teacher’s sole concern was that students write a third-person singular verb – anything – jumps, dies, flies or groans – would have been marked correct. This is such a great example of an exclusive focus on grammar without any concern for meaning or even lexis.

So the point, then, is that despite everything that has been said and written to transform English lessons around the world, conventional approaches to the teaching of grammar have proven very resilient. Here are some reasons for this, in no particular order. I’d be interested to hear whether these resonate in your context, if there are other factors you can add, and, of course, of you disagree:

  • Curricula and assessment systems where substantial weight is given to discrete knowledge of grammar
  • The widespread availability of grammar practice materials (online and in language practice books)
  • Convenience, as grammar exercises are easy to administer and quick to mark
  • Identity, for teachers who feel that being able to explain grammar is the hallmark of a competent language teacher
  • Educational systems where effective teaching is seen to be a process of transmitting knowledge
  • Lack of alternative models, which means that teachers often teach the way they were taught
  • The belief that learning a language means learning grammar
  • Classroom management – grammar exercises keep students busy and quiet
  • Security, where teachers stick to what they feel they know best
  • Lack of training to support changes in how grammar can be taught.

As always I look forward to your comments.

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Workshops and Teacher Change

Recently I observed a training workshop that teachers of English were attending as part of a teacher development project they were on. The theme of the workshop was ‘Using Games’ and the teachers assumed the role of learners and experienced first-hand a number of different games, mostly focused on learning vocabulary. I am sure it was the type of practical workshop that thousands of English teachers around the world attend each year. Do such sessions, though, lead to changes in what teachers do in the classroom? I am quite sure that in most cases they do not. And teacher development work which does not impact on what teachers do is problematic, so let’s look at this example a bit more closely.

The experiential and practical approach taken during the workshop was a strength. Teachers were not just told about games and their value, but they played games themselves. Several elements which impact on teacher learning, though, were absent:

  • there was no prior discussion of teachers’ existing experience of using games – unpacking their prior beliefs, knowledge and classroom experience is important before engagement with new ideas. This is a basic principle not just of teacher learning but of learning generally (see the report How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School).
  • there was little critical discussion of the games the teachers played – e.g. no space to question how suitable they were for their learners
  • the games presented were not contextualized with any reference to the curriculum the teachers followed – e.g. there were no examples of how a particular game might be added to an existing reading comprehension activity in the course book
  • teachers did not see any examples (e.g. through video) of teachers using a game in a real classroom nor were they able to practise (e.g. through micro teaching) using games themselves
  • there would be no further discussion of this theme – the next workshop would move on to another topic.

It is likely, then, that by the end of the workshop (which the teachers clearly enjoyed) they were aware of some new language learning games. They did not acquire the skills, though, to adapt the games to their classroom contexts and to integrate them into their existing practices. And consequently I very much doubt how much of the workshop will have translated into enhanced teaching.

I can apply the same analysis to a 45-minute workshop I led recently for teachers attending a one-day conference. The workshop was reflective in nature, encouraging teachers to share examples of activities they found effective in their teaching and pushing them to articulate how they knew those activities were effective. The teachers engaged in these activities with interest, but is it likely that many of them subsequently applied in their teaching the reflective processes modelled during the session? Of course not, and that is not a criticism of the teachers but of the inherent limitations workshops have in promoting teacher change.

I do not want to dismiss the value of workshops for teachers. What is problematic, though, is the assumption (which I often encounter on teacher development projects) that workshops (simply by increasing teacher awareness and knowledge) lead to changes in what teachers do. They can support teacher change, but as part of a more extended programme of work where teachers have not only input but also, crucially, repeated opportunities to try out new ideas in the classroom, to receive skilled support as they experiment with change (e.g. through mentoring) and to reflect (including collaboratively – e.g. through peer observation) on their efforts. These critical elements are, unfortunately, often wholly absent or given token attention in teacher development work and it is therefore no surprise at all that limited change in what teachers do takes place. Repeated opportunities to engage with specific ideas are also typically lacking; in a 30-hour workshop-based course teachers might cover the teaching of all four skills, grammar, vocabulary and assessment, spending limited time on each; what they need, though, is many hours of supported theoretical, practical (in the classroom) and reflective engagement with one specific idea for this to be integrated fully and effectively into their teaching. This report on effective professional development makes interesting points in this respect.

If we know, then, that workshops of the type discussed above are not an effective mechanism for deep and sustained teacher change, and if contemporary alternatives are available (e.g. see the review in Teacher Professional Learning and Development), why is it that workshops (and the training model of teacher learning they are often based on) remain the core of so much of the English language teacher development work that takes place around the world? Teachers, teacher trainers/educators and project managers/designers, I am very interested in your answers to this question.

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