Evaluation is Over-rated

Yesterday the B.C.A.T.M.L. conference brochure came, as did the C.A.S.L.T. newsletter, and the usual fare was offered:  lots of  “how to use iPads” workshops, lots of “how to get the kids to speak” workshops, and, of course, lots of workshops (and webinars) on D.E.L.F.

The Diplome D’etudes des langues francaises (OK; I probably missed some French finery in there) is the Common European Framework for Reference bla bla which is basically, the E.U., before they began bailing out corrupt banks and kow-towing to Vladimir Putin, set up criteria for languages proficiency.  This is a set of 6 categories– from A1 (beginner), A2, B1, B2, C1 and native speaker mastery is C2.  The idea here was that for business, government employment, work etc purposes, a company or government could assess candidates/students etc to see where they fit onto the scale in terms of proficiency in Language ____ when making employment or palcement decisions.  That’s all good, and C.E.F.R. has come to Canada and the U.S. and the exam– the D.E.L.F., and the D.E.L.E. (Spanish)– that assesses people has been adopted in lots of places and now the big push is “learn to assess in terms of the DELE/DELF exam.”

What this means in practice is basically re-doing what texts do (poorly): “planning out” language teaching by going from allegedly “simple” stuff– hellos, goodbyes, the present tense– to supposedly “complex” stuff such as the imparfait, discussing hopes and dreams, etc.  The usual problems remain, though: what teachers see as “advanced” (e.g. the subjunctive) is actually used quite early on by native speakers; other supposedly “important” vocab (e.g. clothing) is not very frequently used, etc.

Outside of providing Numberz at the end of Semesterz, I think this C.E.F.R.-based organisation of curriculum is more or less a waste of time.  Here is why.

First, in my view, there should basically be zero evaluation (giving a student a number) until literally the last day of the course.  Why?

Well…what if you taught ___ and Johnny isn’t ready to acquire it?  What if Johnny acquires it after you tested him on it, and now he knows it, but that first test mark drags him down?  Johnny gets 70% on his passé composé or whatever test.  What good does a number do him?  Evidence suggests that feedback improves learning much more than assigning numbers.  However, this does not apply to languages, where, as Lightbrown and Spada (2013) put it, “comprehensible input remains the foundation of second language acquisition” and the research clearly shows very few gains resulting from conscious feedback to learners.

A test is also a waste of time.  That’s an hour or whatever where kids could be getting comprehensible input, which is what drives language acquisition.

Second, during-the-year tests do not provide useful feedback for the teacher.

Your kids averaged, say, 70% on the passé composé test they just took.  What does this tell you?  Or, more specifically, how does this info help you plan your next unit of teaching?  What if Arabella got 90% but Sky only got 70% and Max got 50%.  Can you “tailor” your instruction to them?  What if you have 30 kids, and they are all in different places?  What if Samba got 30%? How are you going to teach both Samba and Arabella?  What if Samba isn’t ready for the passé composé and Arabella is bored and wants to move on?

Answer:  with “communicative” or grammar grind or audiolingual teaching, you aren’t going to help them, and nobody else is either.  What you have is kids with a wide range of either abilities, or willingness to listen in class, or both, and you do not have time to teach or plan individually, no matter what your Adminz or Defartment Headz say.  It’s simply not going to happen.  You have thirty kids in your class– you simply do not have time to provide Samba with ____ and Max with ___.

Third, what does Johnny see when he gets his test back?  I’ll tell you what Johnny sees:  a number, and a bunch of red.  And this helps him acquire French how?

Now, at he end of the year, at an upper level (say Gr12), giving the D.E.L.F. or D.E.L.E. exam is great; most people eventually want to/must by law get a Number.  However, one fact– no matter what test we have at the end of the year is– remains: the more interesting comprehensible input students get, the better they will do (unless the exam is of the fill-in-the-blanks-with-the-right-verb-form kind of idiocy).

So what should T.P.R.S. teachers do “along the way”– assessment– to productively guide their instruction?  Remember, people learn by getting quality, attention-worthy comprehensible input (and some people like a bit of grammar explained).

a) check choral responses:  if they are weak or non-existent, your kids either misunderstood the question, or don’t know the vocab, or both.  Go back, explain, try again.  If they are actively listening– not on phones or chatting, following with their eyes, etc– their failure to understand is your fault, not theirs.

b) Monitor retells.  Beginners should be able to re-tell a story (in skeletal form) without too many mistakes.  If they can’t do that (after, say, 20 classes, from memory), you are going too fast and not getting enough repetitions.

c)  Monitor correct use of recent structures.  If you taught “wants to own,” and circled the crap out of it, and they are writing “wants I own” or “I want I own,” there wasn’t enough repetition.

One answer, I would say, is read your speedwrites post-story, find the most-made mistake, and throw that into your next story.  If they don’t know “wants to own,” have a parallel character in the next story who wants to own a dinosaur.

d)  Most importantly, provide rich and diverse input at all times.  As Susan Gross and Stephen Krashen have noted, providing “all the grammar, all the time”– i.e. not delivering simplified, one-dimensional input in order to beat a grammar item into kids’ heads– is the best strategy, provided all input is interesting and comprehensible.  If Samba didn’t get the passé composé on her test last week, if she keeps hearing/reading it, she’ll eventually get it.  If Arabella got 90% on her passé composé test and you’re worried she’s gonna get bored, making the next story interesting will keep her tuned in, while Samba both finds the next story interesting and gets more exposure to the passé composé.

The bottom line for the comprehensible input teacher is, make sure they are listening/reading, make sure they understand– as Ben Slavic says, we ask more y/n questions than we ever thought possible–, deliver lots of interesting, quality comprehensible input,  and if they aren’t understanding, go back and clarify.

This process– assessing as you go– will deliver results.  Self-monitoring, grammar lectures, conjugation exercises:  these are for teacher egos, not kid acquisition.  Deliver good C.I., and the D.E.L.F. scores will come.

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