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Formative assessment and language teaching

Our department has been buzzing a bit more than usual following our training with Dylan Wiliam last week. Most of us have been trying out a few techniques or tweaking our practice a little to make sure all students are positively engaged. I'd like to make one or two observations about AfL (otherwise known as formative assessment), however.

The "no hands up" approach poses problems for us. True, if you impose no hands-up, you are likely to engage a wider range of pupils, but this comes at the cost of pace and at the cost of stretching the most able in the class, who enjoy putting themselves forward and who benefit from doing so. I would argue for compromise in this area, by judiciously allowing hands up, but having sections of lessons with no hands up. Interestingly, Professor Wiliam pointed out to us that the act of raising your hand to answer makes you smarter. Interesting.

Another approach which was recommended to us, and which makes some sense, is allowing students longer to answer questions. We have consciously worked on this. It is so easy, isn't it, to maintain pace by sacrificing the opportunity for the less able to think through an answer. I have been guilty of this in the past, but will allow weaker pupils more time in the future.

However, I do not support the use of equally hard questions for all students, as recommended by Professor Wiliam. So no lolly sticks or random name generators for me, I'm afraid. My instincts tell me to differentiate questions to some extent. As language teachers we depend on careful selection and grading of questions and I shall continue to aim the toughest questions at the most able.

As regards pair and group talk I have always set plenty of pair work - notably using guessing games, information gap tasks, battleships etc, but I am now inclined to get pairs to discuss conceptual issues like tenses and endings. Simply asking pairs to spend a minute working out a definition of the infinitive, or asking them to figure out how regular -er verbs work in the present tense, involves more students in their learning. On a few occasions this week I found myself saying "You've got two minutes - go!" Not rocket science, I know, but you get stuck in your ways after a while!

We have also been doing a bit more checking of progress within the lesson. We have noted, however, that getting kids to put their thumbs up has its limitations, as children will naturally tend to want to please you, even when they do not fully understand. I have to remind myself how often out classes do not understand what we say in the target language. It really is worth checking with students quite regularly whether they understood what you were saying. They appreciate it and you get a better relationship as a result. Not sure whether I shall go down the coloured cups or traffic lights route, but there is a very important principle involved. (If you haven't heard of the cups, you give each student a green, red and yellow plastic cup. If they are following the work they show the green cup on top, if they are lost they show the red cup, if they are a bit uncertain, they show the amber cup.)

Student involvement is very important in lessons, but for effective language learning to take place, lots of listening is needed, so the teacher will have to take a prominent role and talk quite a lot. If we do not supply plenty of TL from our own voices, the computer or the CD, we are letting our students down.

Dylan Wiliam talked a good deal about effective questioning too. This is a tricky one for us, since our questioning is of a very particular type. We ask questions to practise structures and vocabulary as much as to elicit meaning. We should not worry about repetitive drilling and repetition; these are important for the embedding of linguistic competence. In language teaching we exploit the behaviourist dimension more than in other subjects. This is especially true of the early stages. It requires a brisk pace and instant responses, not necessarily a reflective, slow answer.

So, in sum, there are some really good lessons to be learned about formative assessment techniques, but I would suggest that we adapt them to our own personalities and instincts, and that, even more important, we bear in mind what we already know about how language learning takes place.


  1. Steve, I think your comment about the complexity of questions for more able students is spot on. I love challenging higher-ability students further with extra questions to get them slightly out of their comfort zone and see their brains really engaging, and I love even more watching the proud look on their faces as they figure out something both they and I know is quite difficult, and get the appropriate praise for it.
    One strategy I used to use (not so much recently) is wait until I had at least 10 hands up. Sometimes I would share that with the class, so they knew I was waiting for more volunteers. Another I still use frequently is asking students to discuss my question in pairs for 20 seconds before I accept an answer - this tends to wake up even the most unresponsive pupils. Good to see that I'm on the right track!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think that technique you mentioned at the end is a good one. Breaks up the lesson a bit, keeping all involved too.

    2. really very informative information for me and also very helpful.

  2. Yes, I am re-enthused thank you. I am a returning MFL teacher after a break of 10 years. I am sad to report that Blooms and AfL are still rampant in MFL. I attended a CPD session where the whole room was asked to come up with activities linked to the higher (ie better) order thinking skills... I am teaching a group of 10 adults, they are beginners and need help to do even the most basic tasks. ... I just get the feeling that we are often asked to shoe horn ideas into the MFL classroom that we don't feel in our guts are appropriate or indeed relevant.

    1. I don’t find Bloom’s very useful and the pyramid is much criticised. AfL, however, is just plain good teaching. Dylan Wiliam now calls it “responsive teaching” which he finds clearer than the term AfL. I agree. AfL meant that teachers got very confused between formative and summative assessment.


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