Assessment without numbers

What does a number mean? If someone gets 80 on the TOEFL iBT what does it actually mean? Is someone who gets 85 better that someone who got 80? Really? How?

What about in the classroom? You give students a score out of 10, 15, 20 etc, but what does the score really mean? What does good, very good or excellent mean? Do we really know what we mean? Do the students understand what the scores mean, or even these expressions?

What if scores were totally replaced by descriptions or descriptors? What if we gave a student a description of what they had achieved?

Are we giving students marks, because that’s the way it’s always been? Or may be this is also a reflection of our educational backgrounds as well as the undergraduate and graduate courses we’ve taken. After all, we probably also got scores or grades.

And what about the usefulness of assessment. What can we do to make students more aware and at the same time get them to do something about their learning?

It might require us as teachers to also take a closer look at what we mean, and/or what our students are really doing. But may be we just don’t have the time?

So there are a lot of questions here, a lot of elements, what now?

Well, what do you think? What do you do? How can we reinvent testing and assessment?

I’m hoping to add future posts to the questions above.

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Trying to diet and get healthy

I’ve recently decided to get fit again.  Why now? I don’t know, I guess I have the urge to look better and feel better, plus my belly… Well, I won’t say too much about that.

My diet has changed. I’m now eating mostly proteins, and some carbohydrates during the day. There is virtually no sugar in my diet. I’m hoping this is going to help me lose weight!!

So basically, at the moment, for breakfast, I have freshly squeezed orange juice. I also have grapefruit. 2 to 3 hours later, I eat a piece of grilled chicken. I drink plenty of water in-between. I also eat a green apple if I get a chance.

For lunch, I have a sandwich. This is with brown bread and grilled chicken or tuna.The sandwich also contains some salad, so things like cucumber, lettuce, tomato and onions.

I try to drink plenty of water, and again a few hours later I’ll have some more chicken. Not too much. So between lunch and dinner I’m eating mostly fruit, and drinking water.

In the evening, before going to the gym, I’ll have a banana to give me some energy. When I get to the gym, I’ll do some  warm-up exercises, and this is then followed by a session in the gym. I was never a fan of going to the gym, but I’ve decided to have a go. There are different types of sports machines. It’s all new to me. My muscles do ache a little after doing a session. I suppose this is a good sign? On alternate days, I will also do an hour of aerobic exercises. This really makes me sweat.

All of this exercise of course makes me hungry, and so when I get home, I have a ceaser’s  salad (basically, lots of salad and chicken). I know I seem to be eating a lot of chicken, but I do vary this. I eat tuna if I can. So the current focus is on eating a lot of protein, eating relatively few carbohydrates, drinking lots of water and fresh juice, and eating as much fruit as I like.

Where is this all going to end up? Well, time will tell. I’ll keep you posted!

You can use this article as supplementary material if you like, as most EFL/ESL books have a unit related to health. All the best.

Teaching very very weak students how to write

picture source: emiller27.wordpress.com

How many times have you ended up with a class of students who seem to be well below the level required for a particular class?

They cannot seem to comprehend what you say (listening and vocabulary knowledge?), and are unable to respond when you speak to them. They seem to lack basic words, and yet you have to teach them how to write a 5 paragraph essay!

You have a course schedule with a number of units to cover within a finite period of time. You cannot at this point resort to teaching them grammar and improving their lexis.  Admittedly the latter is easier to do than the former.

They also seem to have a problem when it comes to brainstorming, and seem to lack ideas. May be the ideas are there for a restricted list of topics, as they have probably not had to talk about societal issues. I’m assuming that if ideas exist, they are unable to convey these as those ideas can only be conveyed in their L1.

Strategy so far

I’ve been focussing on ensuring that the students internalise the framework of an essay. What I mean is, the idea of having introductions, body paragraphs and a conclusion, and the sub-levels for these important pillars of an essay, e.g. a hook, thesis statement and supporting ideas.

In every class, we have a new topic or topics, and a brainstorming session. This is followed by trying to fit the ideas into the framework. Which of course is then followed by adding meat to this skeleton. This is a good way to introduce new vocabulary. Throughout this period, I’ve been acting ‘all enthusiastic’ as if I’m some kind of football team manager/ motivator.

In addition to the above, I’ve come to the conclusion, that in order to get the attention of the students, we need to brainstorm topics that they can relate to, or are close to their hearts.

I’ve covered topics like ‘finding a marriage partner’, ‘why a certain famous person is famous’ and even how to make ‘rice and meat’ also known as kabsa! I’ve been amazed at the attention the students give, and how familiar, interesting topics engage them. You can see their eyes light-up and of course the smirks when I try to introduce some ‘silly’ topic.

How are we progressing? Well, the prognosis is, that irrespective of how well the student understands the framework, or likes the topic under discussion, if the message cannot be conveyed, which requires a reasonable level of language, then the chances of success are low. Ultimately, the reader needs to understand the message being conveyed. Being able to piece together accurate sentences with appropriate vocabulary is a necessity. Even part accurate will do. But we are even below that. You know how serious word order problems, along with inappropriate vocabulary can just totally confuse the reader.

I’m sure there are ways that others deal with such difficulties, but when you are teaching a 2-3 credit hour course over a semester, it can be difficult to do anything extra. I have asked them to revise certain tenses they may have studied as part of a grammar course in the past. But should I be following this up? There’s little time.

All of the above obviously brings up issues relating to teaching, learning and assessment issues. Issues that I’ll try to discuss in the future. My final thoughts link in to these issues.

Final thoughts: Who let these students pass the previous courses? They could not possibly have passed looking at their current performance. What were they being taught before and how? What kind of assessment was going on, and using what standard? Is the context a major problem, and do we need to take a closer look at this?

All the best.

‘Kosher English’ lessons for Israel’s ultra orthodox

Source: Guardian Weekly TEFL update: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/18/elt-diary-september?CMP=EMCGUWEML335

This news report has been ‘lifted’ from the Guardian Weekly TEFL update (link above). Hats off to the Jerusalem Post Group for starting ‘Kosher English’. May be we should have ‘Halal English?’ – Just a thought.  Many could identify with the idea stated by a member of the editorial team i.e. “The challenge is not only to keep the principles of Halacha, such as modesty and avoid lashon hara[slanderous talk], but also to strengthen faith in Hashem and learn English at the same time.”

Article below:

Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community is being offered a new way to learn English: a weekly magazine written in simplified English with Hebrew glossaries and overseen by a religious committee of rabbis and Jewish educators.

The magazine, called Kosher English, is published by the Jerusalem Post Group, and contains local and international news stories as well as articles specially for the ultra-orthodox community.

The editorial team are members of the haredi community. The editor, Tami Kalish, told the Jerusalem Post: “The idea was to create a newspaper for haredim in easy English. The challenge is not only to keep the principles of Halacha, such as modesty and avoid lashon hara[slanderous talk], but also to strengthen faith in Hashem and learn English at the same time.”

Early editions of the magazine have been serialising the bestselling autobiography by Rabbi Aharon Margalit, As Long as I Live, which, Kalish said, describes the difficulties in his life that he overcame thanks to his strong faith.

Kosher English: http://www.jpost.com/LandedPages/KosherEnglish.aspx

 

From sentence to paragraph to essay – Teaching paragraph writing in Saudi Arabia

After having taught in Saudi Arabia for around 8 years, it is only now that some aspects of what makes Saudi students ‘tick’ is making me re-think my preconceptions of why students struggle to write.

During a recent writing course I was teaching, the best student in the class made me aware that he and the other students had never been taught how to write paragraphs at school. “We were just told to write”. So that’s what they did – write.

They were not taught to:

  • Plan
  • Write an outline
  • Brain storm
  • To write their ideas in any particular order
  • Or to write with any kind of interconnectedness
  • Or to summarise their ideas

There were told “just to write”.

This information is important, as what this brief piece of information reveals, is that students lack basic cognitive/thinking/learning skills, and that in the EFL classroom in addition to worrying about language, a great deal of time needs to be spent in just developing these more ‘lateral skills’.

If anyone knows of any traits within Arabic writing that might help us understand the Arabic writing/thinking process, then could they please share their experiences?

It’s not an Arab problem, it’s a Saudi problem. I say this, as all Arabs tend to be boxed into one category, but as experience shows, cultural and experiential factors play a significant part in how learning and language skills develop. We certainly need more research in this area.

Jumping around like a monkey and trying to motivate the unmotivateable

The title is I must admit a bit harsh (does the word unmotivateable exist?), but in a way describes the context I found myself in the other day.

From a language instructor background, I’m used to ‘jumping around like a monkey’.

Most language instructors try hard to get the attention of their students, trying to get them involved in class activities, with the goal that by the end of the class they will have taken another step in their language learning. When I see a student yawn, I feel the need to access my ‘teaching strategy file’ in that upper stratum we call the brain!

The other day, I was facing a group of BA English students. I had been placed within a ‘lecturing environment’ where as one of the students told me, “teacher we are used to listening, not speaking. We just take notes.”

Tasked with having to teach modals (I was teaching grammar of course) I was faced with a bleary-eyed group of young to mature adult males.It was also late afternoon – 5.30 pm to be exact.

After a few minutes, I realised that my students were not only having difficulty with the concept, they did not seem to understand what I was saying!! When I asked them a question, all I got was silence.

What now I thought as I rubbed my chin and raised one eyebrow (in a James Bond like fashion of course).

Eureka!! (I thought)

I offered to let all of my students go home if they each wrote a sentence for the words must, might, may and could.

I wrote the words on the white board, drew four columns and made my board markers available to anyone who was brave enough to come to the front and take a risk. “Even if you make a mistake, I’ll be happy, the point is to try!!”

I waited a few minutes. Two to three students (the best ones as expected) wrote four sentences each, followed by immediate feedback from yours truly. They then all went home.

After what then seemed quite a few minutes, one or two of the students came forward and started writing. They could look at their grammar book, but they had to use different vocabulary.

The students ‘I think’ had observed the other students writing, looked at what they had written, as well as my feedback, and were beginning to pick up a pattern.

Slowly but surely, some of the more shy students started coming to the front. In a way they had no choice, as the class was becoming empty as more and more of the students started leaving. I gave individual feedback and made sure all the students were watching and at the same time was rallying them to “have a go”.

The class ended at about the same time it normally would.

I was beginning to wonder. Do I have to offer them a chance to go home early in every class to get them to actually learn something or even motivate them? Remember, this was an unusually difficult situation?

And is lecturing really the right way to be teaching a second language? Obviously I can’t use this strategy all of the time.

What would you have done?