Sunday 8 July 2012

Summer Reading: Modern Languages inside the black box, Jane Jones and Dylan Wiliam

Although dating back to 2008, this little booklet published GL Assessment and widely available online, is still key reading material for anybody looking at sharpening their Assessment for Learning (AFL) practice in the modern languages classroom. Some points may have been made some time ago, but the reason why they were made may have been forgotten as specific aspects of good practice were being pushed into schools.
According to the authors, it is essential to demystify language learning by sharing learning objectives and success criteria with the learners.  The ultimate goal will then be to enable students to develop the capacity to own and monitor their own progress as independent language users. This task will need to be supported across the school through developing students’ “meta-language”   in English and possibly even in the target language.
I have always been reticent to use the target language to present grammatical points as I have always felt that it was something many of my students would consider as one hurdle too many. However, I have always supported the idea that modern languages are a very good vehicle to develop students’ literacy in English.
I do feel that once the concepts have been presented and are understood, there is no harm in referring to them in the target language especially if they are cognate in the foreign language, which is often the case for the two languages I teach-French and Spanish.
Good language teaching is underpinned by effective questioning and it is crucial to enable all students to take part in the lesson, whatever their personalities and degrees of confidence.
The “ No hands up except to ask a question” is an effective strategy to allow you to do just that although it cannot be used all the time-particularly if you want a different answer to one given by a particular student. This change can be supported by a display like a “Hands up OK/No hands up clock” 
If we find it difficult to choose students at random , we can use a range of strategies including lollipop sticks and cards-provided we put them back in straight away or students might feel they are off the hook for the rest of the lesson. For students who are stuck, phone a friend,  Ask the audience or  50/50 can help them cope with the situation better and develop their resilience.
If a student says “I don’t know”, say “OK I ll come back to you”-and make sure you do or “yes, but if you did know, what would you say?”, insisting that all students must participate. Although that strategy works for most, what we need to consider is what to do when carry on telling you that they don’t   after their second chance (and some students will!!). Write it on a post-it and put it on a “stuck board”? Give the student a chance to find out about the answer and report back to the class at the beginning of the following lesson?
The “Question basketball” technique also aims to increase students’ involvement. The teacher asks a question to a random student, then chooses another for an evaluation of the answer, then another to provide an explanation of why the answer is correct or incorrect. By bringing different students into the discussion, the teacher  will develop individual reflection and student autonomy.
Rich questions move away from students just recalling the information to reflecting on the information at different levels-this is when references to Bloom’s taxonomy can be useful. For example “Is the verb avoir regular?” is a question requiring low order thinking whereas a question like “How can you tell a verb is irregular?” involves students into higher order thinking.
Rich questioning should also aim to provide opportunities for students to link current with previous learning. Indeed, it is especially important to teach students how the vocabulary taught in one context can be used in another.
“Waiting time” is an effective strategy to encourage learners to reflect on the quality of their answers. Examples of prompts include… “What can we add to  X ‘s answer?”, “Do you agree with X’s answer”. The teacher needs to plan for increasingly more linguistically challenging questions which cannot be answered with just “reproduced” language and do involve some degree of language manipulation.
All-students response systems can help involving all students and assessing their progress in the lesson. E.g. asking if a word/ phrase is correct and asking students to respond with thumbs up or down. This can create what Dylan and Jones call a “teachable moment”, when the teacher ask a student “You thought this was correct/ incorrect-can you tell me why?”. This technique can also be used with multiple choice answers and cards, mini whiteboards or an electronic voting system.
“The only effective feedback is that which is used”. This seems to state the obvious, but we all know how difficult it is to encourage students to act upon feedback. One simple technique is to tell them that there are errors and provide them with the time in class to put them right. The errors could be classified in spelling, grammar-for verb endings-, missing words etc…
The students could also be given a piece back with some errors underlined and encouraged to classify the errors into different categories. This exercise would then feed into students setting their own targets and working with peers who have complementary difficulties.
When the teacher sets target as a way to give feedback, if the feedback is intended to improve future work, the targets may need to be more general. This feedback can also be given following the “two stars and wish” format where students or teacher give 2 positive points and a wish for improvement on the work discussed.
The formative use of summative assessment is best done in groups of four or five to produce the best collaborative response as they can.  The other groups will then have to evaluate the response following set criteria.
For self-and peer-assessment, traffic lights can be an effective way to assess role-play work provided it is preceded by sharing clear success criteria and followed by deep questioning to ensure all students know how to reach the highest achievement they can.  If not, this will only lead to lower order thinking and not change students’ learning habits.

1 comment:

Kristina Hedges said...

What a great and helpful summary! Thanks so much for this. I hope you don't mind but I'm sending this link to the CILT Cymru email forum for langauge teachers in Wales.

We have a training module on assessment for learning on our website here:

Best wishes,
Kristina (Programme Manager, CILT Cymru)