Polishing the Diamond: 7 Steps to Needs Assessment for Advanced Learners

Polishing the Diamond
7 Steps to Needs Assessment for Advanced Learners

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 8,251 views

How much choice do you have over the types of classes that you teach?

A lot of experienced teachers find themselves pigeon-holed as best suited for the upper-intermediate and advanced classes, and that’s where I spent a lot of my time during my work at language schools. Like many professionals, I’d be equally happy with whatever schedule the school gave me, be it working with elementary students or with a high-level business class, but I’ve found that some schools tend to lack a syllabus or even intended textbook for the more advanced classes. There’s the assumption that the teacher will simply ‘know what to do’, and perhaps even be able to design a course to suit their students’ needs.

If you’re in this position – and it’s happened to me a number of times – then the first instinct might be a touch of panic.

After all, these are very experienced learners who have covered a lot of the ‘classic’ ESL material, and working with them might take special preparation and resources.

A good place to start is to carry out a thorough ‘needs assessment’ (sometimes called a ‘learning needs analysis’, or something similar) so that you’re quickly aware of how far your students have traveled along the road to native-level fluency. Every student will have shortcomings, areas of weakness – call them what you will – but they can be hard to pin down without a little study. Here’s how I’ve been doing it:

7 Steps to Needs Assessment for Advanced Learners

  1. 1

    Build Assessment into the First Lessons

    As you’re putting together your first week’s lesson plan, and perhaps even before constructing the basics of a course plan for the whole multi-week period, build in time for activities which will be solely based around assessment. By this, though, I really don’t mean ‘testing’ in the received sense, where a group of students sit in silence for two hours and complete a paper exam. Some of that’s inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be right at the start; you might disagree, but I tend to feel that it sets an overly formal tone to the course, and some students might find it intimidating, or worse still, simply boring.

    Instead, schedule sessions of discussion, some listening, and a bit of reading with some comprehension questions. Have the students read aloud, so you can check pronunciation. Ask for a writing sample – do this informally, so it still doesn’t feel like a test, or a belated verification of their suitability for the class – and offer choices (letter, essay, movie review, email, memo) so that they don’t feel forced to write in an unfamiliar style.

  2. 2

    Keep Your Ears Open

    During, and then beyond, these initial assessment sessions, speak less than you otherwise would. There are lots of ways to reduce your Teacher Talking Time (TTT), but the best one is simply to back off, let the students get on with the discussion, and listen like crazy. Make this a physical thing – actually take a step backward when your students are discussing a topic. Maybe fold your arms, look thoughtful and curious, but keep out of the discussion for as long as you can. Advanced students will be able to carry on a fully-fledged conversation without your help, be it solving a problem, negotiating an agreement, planning a course of action or just mulling over an item from the news.

  3. 3

    Write Everything Down

    These are prime opportunities for learning about your students, so don’t let them go to waste. Keep detailed notes on everything you hear. I make a point of noting down any and all of the following:

    • Grammatical errors in different categories (normally: tenses and conjugations, conditionals, modals, pronouns / possessives and word order)

    • Use of vocabulary. Listen for whether the students’ use of vocabulary sounds a little bit stunted or under-developed, where the same words recur a lot, or when the student has to think at length before the word will come out.

    • Pronunciation. As early as possible, perhaps even before meeting your students, learn where they are from and begin assessing their progress toward native-level pronunciation and accent compared to the ‘base’ performance of a student from that region. Are your Chinese students still adding artificial schwa sounds after final consonants? Are the Arabic speakers rolling their ‘r’ sounds? Are the Dutch students substituting ‘sh’ for ‘s’ (as in ‘shtudents’)?

    • Classroom management issues. At its simplest, is anyone acting up? Is there anyone who seems bored, inattentive, distracted or exhausted? Does the group have a turbulent past? I inherited a badly dysfunctional class once, but speaking with two of their previous teachers clued me in. I was able to deal with some issues – selfish dominance by two stronger students, and outright misogyny by another – in the first week.
  4. 4

    Get the History

    There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. If the same group was taught previously by others, get their opinions, and the students’ grades, attendance figures and even past homework assignments, to help build your database of information.

  5. 5

    Include Error Corrections

    These are often overlooked but enormously helpful exercises, especially when meeting a new class for the first time, and I like to organize the class into groups of two or three for these tasks. Faced with the requirement to work together, analyze a problematic sentence (e.g. ‘He said me he mother have been ill’) and compose a grammatically correct alternative, groups reveal much about themselves. Their grammatical knowledge will become clearer, but also the way that they work together, their level of spoken communication, and the atmosphere among the groups will be revealed. I make tons of notes during these tasks, and during the feedback afterward, when I ask the students to explain why the grammar is wrong; here, you’ll see whether they understand the underlying theory, as well as the right way to proceed.

  6. 6

    Keep Assessing Regularly

    If you’re given leave to design your own assessment system – and I’d always recommend a rolling ‘continuous’ assessment approach for all but the shortest courses – then build in a good mix of exercises, and not simply paper tests done in silence. Assess your students’ presentations, contribution to class discussions, pronunciation, homework, and participation. Weight your testing toward those elements you revealed to be problems on the students’ first day; tailor your course aims to fill in the gaps.

    And then use the tests, not just to create grades to fill in another sheet of numbers for your boss. Analyze the students’ performance against the intended targets. This might sound very business-like and dry, but this is one of the areas in ESL where a very practical approach might serve you best in answering some of the most important questions: Have my students improved? Are they reaching their potential? Are they still making mistakes in areas we’ve covered together?

    If so, double back and review the content again. Use error correction exercises to highlight those points, and make a fuss about that species of mistake when you hear it in class. I remember drilling into my Thai students the importance of conjugating ‘have’ correctly in the third person, so that every time someone erred and said, “it have,” I would yell as if stabbed. The error didn’t last long after that.

  7. 7

    Encourage Self Analysis

    Once your assessment is over, your course is designed and your lessons are well underway, make sure to encourage your students to frequently record their own speaking. They’ll learn an extraordinary amount through this often humbling experience, and it will reinforce the points you’ve been making in class.

The first few lessons with a new group, especially a class of advanced learners, can be very intensive and tiring, but that special effort will pay off.

The very sense that you’re taking their educational needs seriously, and responding directly to those needs, will help engender respect. A thorough needs assessment is essential for creating that list of course aims which will guide the content and skills work, and it will help you gauge whether your students are truly making progress.

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