How should I grade translations?

This question is from Sarah-Beth who teaches French to grade 7s and 8s.

Q: How do I grade translations?

First, principles.  Whatever you want students to read and decode should be

1) at LEAST 90% vocabulary they have either acquired, or frequently read.  Research shows that people can read independently only when they recognise 90% of what they read.  The other 10% is “noise” and/or vocab that will slowly be acquired.  Remember– our passive (recognition) vocab is always way larger than our active (production) vocab– so, if you have been doing lots of reading, your students shoul be able to understand a fair bit of things they can’t (yet) say.

2) in some kind of meaningful form– e.g. a story, a clear and obvious character describing him/herself, etc– not isolated sentences.

3) Latin teacher James Hosler has said that “for me, assessment is just another excuse for providing comprehensible input.”  I couldn’t agree more. 

I would suggest you give them a 150-200 word story.  This story should include vocab from the entire course, not just your most recent story.  Have them copy it (this is free reps!).  They write the translation underneath in a different-coloured pen.  Underneath that, they leave a blank line (this is to keep it legible).  Or, you could hand out a triple-spaced copy of the story, and they write the translation underneath.

Count the words in the original.  For every meaning-based mistake students make, they lose one point.  For every verb-tense (relatively trivial) mistake, take off 1 mark. 

So if the original is 200 words, and Johnny makes 3 meaning-based errors, and 4 verb-tense errors, his mark is 193/200 = 96.5%

Another idea (from Ben Slavic) is dictee-translation.  For this, dictate a short, ten-sentence story, or put a picture on your O/H and describe it.  The kids listen (NO ENGLISH!) and write.  When done, project the story/description onto O/H.  Have the kids fix their mistakes (this is good CI!).  Then, have them translate (in different-cloured pen) under what they have written in TL.  You assess (a) their corrections and (b) their translation. 

Most teachers find that translation results are amazing– kids really do “get” what we repeat in stories, PQA, etc, because we teach for mastery (acquisition) and don’t go on until the kids get what we are describing– and the translation marks should be pretty high.  If colleagues object– “what?  they’re all getting As on comprehension?  they CAN’T be THAT good?” you’ll be OK…because in TPRS, we teach for mastery, not “presentation” and we EXPECT our kids who attend and focus to understand everything.    

I also think that multiple choice questions to determine how much students understand are fine…but it will be a lot of work to make them, as the “three plausible distractors” rule is tough, and it’s surprsingly hard to come up with questions.  You could use something from a standardised program (e.g. Avancemos)…but then you have the problem of super content-specific questions and grammar which probably won’t line up with what you’ve done in stories and readings.

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