Are We There Yet? How to Assess the Achievement of ESL Learning Aims

Are We There Yet? How to Assess the Achievement of ESL Learning Aims

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 4,172 views

Are you one of those people who couldn’t make it through the day without a list of ‘Things to Do’?

I confess that I am. Without my list, I’m much less likely to get things done, will probably forget something important, and will have trouble figuring out what to do next. Empowered with my list, though, I have a strong sense of purpose and forward motion. I apply this idea of setting objectives to my teaching, and each class I teach has a clear and stated set of simple aims.

Check Essential Qualities of  the Learning Aims

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    Bear in mind who you are teaching, what has come before, and how likely a given aim is to succeed. Consider their level and avoid packing too much material of a demanding nature into a single class period. In the same way, requiring a class of advanced speakers to practice the present continuous isn’t too useful, either.

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    Based on a Needs Analysis

    If the students have already mastered a particular tense, leave it alone for a while. Instead, keep notes on the mistakes they’ve continued to make, and focus on these areas, whether they’re matters of pronunciation, limited vocabulary choice, grammar or other skills (reading for gist, writing notes, listening to news reports, etc).

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    Specific, or General

    I’ve begun conversation or general speaking classes with aims as nebulous as ‘Increase Fluency’ or ‘Work on Confidence’. Conversely, for a grammar class I might have, ‘Tidy up word order in conditionals’ or ‘Double check use of ‘have’ for the modal past’. Have a mix of aims, with some highly specific (the successful achievement of which will be very obvious) and some perhaps more general (whose accomplishment may not become apparent for many weeks).

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    Connected to Your Students’ Interests

    If you’re working with a group of business people, then presentation skills and the lexicon of formal meetings will be very helpful; this is less true of sports vocabulary, for example, or the language of cooking. Again, consider your customers (as some schools call them) and what they truly need to be doing; often, their time is very limited, and their investment has been considerable, so really try to tailor your content to the people you’re working with.

Remember Your Three Watchwords: Production, Production and Production

The achievement of your aims is, more often than not, seen through one or more forms of production. Far too often overlooked, production is the Holy Grail of language learning, the ultimate aim of a language teacher. Production simply means that the student has grasped the material, processed its usefulness in given situations, and then used it to spontaneously create their own utterance.

For me, and for most of the teachers I’ve worked with, it is not sufficient for a student to observe the learning happen, i.e. when the teacher presents the material and (hopefully) gives examples. Expecting students to learn simply by watching is a road to nowhere. Consider any difficult skill you’ve mastered - I recently had to struggle through (what were for me) the convoluted intricacies of parallel parking, so that’s my example. Can you conceive of a new driver becoming competent at something so nuanced and as three-dimensionally challenging, simply by watching a parent showing them a bunch of times?

Of course not. You’d put the student in the driver’s seat as quickly as possible, and have them drill how to coordinate the various elements, and judge the different angles, until they had it down. It is exactly the same, in my opinion, with language learning. We learn best by doing. This is why I demand and expect production of the target language from my students; once they have done this, we can say they have learned, and not simply come to class.

Proper Production Proves Perceptive Participation

Note that I insist on proper production. As I often say to my students, “I’m a greedy boy! I want to hear every word of the structure.” Refusing to be content with an approximation, I pull the whole structure through my students’ minds, and then either from their mouths, or onto paper. Another often-heard refrain in my classroom is this: “Oh, so you know this already? Great! Now, prove it to me”. We’re not done until I’ve seen the whole process happen.

Consider What Good Production Means

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    All of the helping verbs are in place, and in the correct conjugation. The pronunciation is good. The student hasn’t forgotten the ‘ing’ gerund ending, or given the word an incorrect emphasis. They sound as though they know what they’re doing.

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    By the time we’re working through Free Practice, the student is being presented with reasons to use the language beyond simply completing a gap-fill or answering a simple question. They’re now being invited to utilize this new structure, or field of vocabulary, to express something new and of their own. Which brings us to…

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    The student need not refer to the board, the textbook, their friends, or even their notebook, to be able to produce the target language. No help is needed; the learning has truly happened.

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    Connected to Existing Knowledge

    Once the structure is learned, blend it with other structures they already know. Modal verbs and conditionals prove to be second cousins. If you’ve learned the past continuous, the future continuous is an easy step away. If you’ve just learned a family of adverbs, attach as many different verbs to them as possible: “What else could we do ‘formally’?” (Dance, speak, approve, object, complain., etc.)

Now Prove It Wasn’t a Fluke

The next class should have review of this new content, just to prove that the student has really grasped it. A two- or three-minute review exercise at the beginning of class does wonders for the retention of new information, and demonstrates true competence. At this point, take the material out for a spin; find antonyms and synonyms for vocabulary; find other verbs with weaker or stronger meanings (e.g. if you’ve learned ‘strike’, branch out to find ‘punch’, ‘whack’ and ‘splinter’); check the past, present and future forms of tenses; change the content from active to passive voice, etc, etc.

It is not easy to insist on the production of language.

It requires thoughtful preparation and a determination to see clear proof that the language learning process as been a success. But the dividends are enormous; your students’ learning will benefit greatly as soon as they realize that production is the key.

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