June 2004 -- Volume 8, Number 1

Assessing Young Learners

Sophie Ioannou-Georgiou & Pavlos Pavlou (2003)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. 183
ISBN 0-19-437281-2 (paper)
£13.80

Introduction

Assessing Young Learners is a Primary Resource Book from Oxford meant for experienced as well as not so experienced practitioners who typically assess young learners (between the ages of 6 and 12) of English as a second or foreign language in class.

The authors in a very accessible way set out how to go about assessing children in class, what assessment means in practice and how there is a thin line between assessment and classroom teaching. They clearly show that assessment and evaluation are a part of a more global process of which testing is only one part. To illustrate, the authors make clear how important it is to take into account, for example, the learner's attitude(s) before, during and after assessment. Lest this characterization leads one to conclude that their concern is only with a narrow view of assessment, it needs to be pointed out that at every opportunity the authors factor in practicalities such as how to adapt an assessment task in case there is mixed-ability grouping in class and how to cope with intangibles like changing motives and different motivational states even in a single learner in class.

It is often said that practice outstrips theory. Although the wider notion of assessing rather than the narrower view of language testing has been around for a decade or more, the authors make sure that the assessment tasks and the notes on how to implement them are grounded in reality, at the same time as resting on sound theoretical principles. For instance, a speaking assessment task such as "Hickory dickory dock" (pp. 46-49) accommodates the strong child as well as the shy one thus: While the task's purpose is to assess the speaking skills including intonation and pronunciation, it besides allowing stronger children to recite rhymes in class also permits shy ones to rehearse reciting rhymes at home, recording them on tape when they are ready to do so and bringing them to class to give to teacher. This is one of the few teacher's manuals, it can be said, that has an assessment activity, "Attitudes towards English lessons" (pp. 107-109) that "encourages children to express their feelings and attitudes towards their English classes in a quick and efficient way (by asking them to draw sad, happy or neutral expressions on faces in boxes in response to the lessons they had learnt)." The assessment tasks in this book then are either at par with current theoretical formulations or even slightly ahead of what TESOL pedagogy has to state, especially with regard to the question of learner affect--their motives, emotional well-being in class, attitudes towards what goes on during lessons and so on. [-1-]

The theoretical underpinning of the assessment tasks in the book is that they are mindful of the Critical Period Hypothesis that states that children before the age of 12 or so learn by making use of their memory and innate language learning ability. In other words, children learn holistically rather than analytically, which is the basis of most of the assessment tasks in this book. None of the tasks, for example, require the children to depend on their analytical skills. In fact, accuracy is not focused on as much as fluency is. The authors take care to make use of tasks that either require children to recite rhymes learnt by heart or produce grammatical structures co-operatively and with the active assistance of the teacher. Also, the authors make sure that the assessment activities are fun-filled, activity-oriented, interesting, suitable and at the level of the child. Most importantly, perhaps, the book stresses the importance of making use of portfolios as one of the assessment tools. In fact, the assessment activity that begins the book is the one on language portfolios, what they are, the reasons for using portfolios and some guidelines for using them. As a matter of course, the use of portfolios to assess underscores the fact that children love to keep and add to their portfolios, which in turn would help them become autonomous learners and also develop in them a sense of responsibility besides encouraging positive attitudes towards the language in the child.

Organization and Features of the Text

At the broad macro level, the activities are divided up into assessment tasks pertaining to the different skill areas as well as specialized areas that can be called a first in such teacher manuals. Besides developing assessment tasks for the four language skills, the authors have focused predominantly on the portfolio as an assessment tool. As pointed out earlier, the tasks assessing children's skills at keeping and updating portfolios actually begin the book. The portfolio tasks are followed by tasks for assessing the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. These in turn are followed by tasks for integrated skills, which are tasks that make use of more than one language skill, as it happens in real life. Surprisingly, but not unwelcome, the next set of tasks is on grammar. The choice is surprising as one would expect grammar tasks to be integrated either with integrated skills tasks or with one of the four language skill assessment tasks. But as it happens, the authors point out that it would be unfair to penalize grammar errors when assessing communicative skills and therefore grammar needs to be assessed separately. The section on grammar is followed by 'Self-assessment,' 'Learning how to learn' and 'Record keeping and reporting.' Tasks that promote self-assessment go hand in hand with activities that elicit learners' likes and dislikes, attitudes towards lessons and journal writing. Tasks that assess learners' learning how to learn skills follow the above. Some of the tasks are locating a word in a dictionary, guessing the meaning of a word in context and so on. The final set of assessment tasks gives help to the reader on how to keep records (term and semester records) and reports class and individual learner progress, as a part of the assessment process. 40 and more photocopiable pages of worksheets follow this.

At the level of the different components of the various assessment tasks, the task provides information about the level that it is intended for, the age group, the time it would take for administering it, a description of the task and the kind of language required by the child, the skills to be assessed, the assessment criteria, the materials needed for the task, the preparation that goes into each of the tasks, the procedure for coping with the tasks in class, the feedback provided to the students, the follow up activities, the variations (if any), the assessment of outcome and portfolio (if needed). The provision of information at the level of the different components of the task makes it user-friendly. [-2-]

Evaluation

The face validity of the assessment tasks is without doubt not in question. Another factor that strengthens that belief is when the authors advocate for instance peer-assessment to complement teacher-led assessment. Especially in speaking assessment tasks, when the strong student volunteers to speak in class, his or her peers can assess their performance. The reasoning behind such advocacy is that it is not necessary for the teacher to assess each of the students by himself or herself all the time. Moreover, peer-assessment gives an insight into the task and what their own and others' weaknesses are, thereby helping the learner. Yet another factor increasing the face validity is the fact that the authors at every opportunity have tried to draw the parents into the assessment cycle as well. Parents are required to provide comments or grades on their children's homework, take-home tests, portfolios and so on.

The only assessment task that appears to be above the level of the children that it is intended for is "A cartoon story" (pp. 64-66). Whereas a part of the requirement of the task seems easy enough ('children prepare a cartoon strip based on one scene), what would seem to be difficult and beyond the capacity of most of the eight year-olds is the requirement that they prepare a cartoon strip based on the overall plot of a story or reader they have read. While at a theoretical level it is indeed commendable that the authors have specified an assessment task that accounts for the holistic skill of understanding the plot of a story, at the level of practicalities, it may not be possible for most eight-year-olds to get the plot of a story. Further, the assessment of outcome (p. 65) does not provide help on the plot question, if that is what a class decides to work on. The five questions that are given as samples appear to tap into the description of a scene. If the authors had wanted to give some sample questions for understanding the plot, they would have given questions such as the following:

When did the King die?
Why did the Queen die?
What happened to the kingdom then?

On the whole, however, Assessing Young Learners would appear to complement the books on testing admirably.

Ilangovan Padmanaban
<Pilangovan@hotmail.com >

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