The ABC of ELT

Assessment For Learning in ELT

bus shelter in aldeburgh

I’m sure most learners are familiar with “Assessment of learning” the idea that at some point in our learning journey (typically the summer and at certain key ages, but as we get older with greater variability) we are measured and assessed to a standard of what we have learnt. I’d love to meet someone who has never gone through some form of assessment of their learning, but I think I may be searching for a long time. The truth is, we have all, and probably will in the future, faced assessment of our learning.

Sometimes this assessment get’s a bad rap and some forms of assessment are criticised more vigourously. However, in almost every case, the assessment is done at a time to measure how effectively a student has completed a series of task and thus what they know and how much they have learnt.

Assessment for Learning (AfL) is a British Council initiative that tries to adapt assessment for more than that original purpose. To turn peer and self assessment into not the end of the process, but the middle or start and so use assessment as a means of learning rather than a test of pre-existing learning.

What is Assessment For Learning?

Assessment for Learning follows the idea that Assessment (in the form of peer and self assessment) can spur on learning and lead to students being better equipped outside of the classroom to continue their learning in both languages and beyond. This is done via a variety of systems, tasks, and methods that encourage students to be reflective on their learning and evaluate both what they have learnt and their output.

In practice this usually means that students

  • have a goal or tasks (either self set or set by the teacher)
  • students generate the criteria for this goal to be achieved
  • students work out what will help them achieve their criteria
  • they carry out their task and assess how successful it was, and how they can improve it further.

As you might have guessed, in this case the teacher’s role is definitely more of a guide and facilitator than a bank of knowledge, or instructor. However, for students who are newer to AFL, the teacher may become more hands on and guide criteria in a more hands on way.

You may well have also noticed that this is very similar to the reflective process that many of us in the teaching profession undertake. Whereby we use self and peer evolution tools to critically evaluate how our teaching in progressing and then set new targets to work towards.

Key aspects of Assessment For Learning

Assessment for Learning can take many different forms but some typical aspects include

Learning objectives

These can be either student set, or teacher set. They often come in “can do” statements, and they should be student centred. Importantly, they should be measurable so that they can be effectively assessed (i.e. “Sts will understand a text” isn’t as good as “students will be able to answer questions about a text” as it demonstrates their understanding).

Assessment criteria

Assessment criteria are the fine details of how the learning objective will be achieved. For example, writing a letter to a pen friend (that very common exam task) would require a student to

  • use appropriate language (informal, maybe using certain vocabulary items from recent weeks)
  • stick to the word/paragraph/etc limit
  • use genre specific phrases
  • check their letter for mistakes at the end.

This show the students both how they will know if they have done their tasks successfully and what they may need to work on before doing the task to correctly complete the task.

Student assessment (self or peer)

One of the best things about AfL is that it puts the students in charge of assessing their work. Of course, the teacher can still help make sure nothing slips through the gaps but when the students know the criteria in advance, they will understand why they succeed or not. One of the great things I’ve noticed is that groups of students who might put in a half-arsed attempt seem to go a bit further when they self assess.

When the criteria have been set and agreed to by the students, then they will look at their work and make sure they meet the criteria. When I first started using AfL I noticed the same issues I always had with writing with teenage students, half the students wouldn’t get to the word limit. However, after time, as they assessed their own work and turned up to class with their criteria marked, they couldn’t pretend they had forgotten. Instead, on the whole, almost every student started hitting the word limit as well as the other assessment criteria.

Continuous assessment

Assessment for Learning is not for the end of a course (or the mid point) like many other assessment systems but instead is continuous. Almost every class there is some form of progress check to help students monitor their progress and evaluate where they need to move on to next. And no, Grammar gap fills don’t count as assessment tasks.

The other side to the continuous assessment element is it never ends, it helps provide the students the tools they need to continue their learning beyond the course.

Putting it into practice

Putting Assessment for Learning comes in many forms by here are some practical ideas and activities to help implement it including some ideas I’ve been using.

Can do statements

Can do statements are my new best friend. They work for kids, teens and adults. They show a new skill, genre or lexis item that students can use and provide a clear goal. They are a great tool for instant assessment (Can I do that?)

With kids, it can be great fun to get them to show using gladiatorial thumbs whether they think they can do something or not, and whether they can do it better at the end of the lesson or not as well. With adults and teens, keeping a log of the different skills can really help them see their progress through out the course.

Model texts

Model texts are very useful within Assessment for Learning, they provide an example and can be deconstructed to find what makes them good examples. This is especially true of teaching genre and at a discourse level rather than focusing on just a sentence level of language. Model texts can of course be written or spoken.

Assessment criteria for production tasks

I’ve mentioned assessment criteria above so I won’t say much more here other than they can be used for written and spoken work, and keeping a checklist with the assessment criteria (especially an individual one in their book) is really good.

Perfect purple and green for growth

This is a simple marking system where you use the colour purple to underline successful items and Green to underline areas to work on. This should be done using the assessment criteria so if someone uses the genre appropriate discourse markers, then they get purple, if the wording is a bit off, green.

Rounding up

I stated using Assessment for Learning as it was part of our school policy for teaching children but quickly found that it was effective and so started to implement similar ideas with all my students. My informal observations have been that it has lead to greater motivation, higher quality output and more useful tasks for my students to do.

I’d love to know your thoughts


About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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