Month: February 2017

Why I (Almost) Never Assess Speaking

So this was asked on a forum recently and, as usual, it got me thinking.

This is a question about “El Internado,” but, really, it applies to anything we do in a language class.  We read/ask a story/do a Movietalk or Picturetalk, etc, and then we want to assess speaking, comprehension, etc.

My response to this question is don’t bother assessing speaking.

But first, a qualifier:  if our Board/school/dept. etc says we absolutely MUST assess speaking, well, then, go for it.  We do what we have to do to keep our job.  But if we don’t have to assess speaking, don’t.  Here is why.

  1. The info we gain from this cannot generally guide instruction, which is the point of any assessment (other than at the very end of the course).  The reason for this is very simple: what will we do if what we learn from assessment varies wildly (which it almost certainly will)? If Samba has problems with the pretérito verb tense, Max doesn’t understand questions with pronouns, and Sky can fluidly ask and answer anything, how are we going to design future instruction around that info?  How are we going to “customise”  reading/stories, etc to give 30 different kids the input they need?  Answer:  we can’t.
  2. This takes forever.  If we have 30 kids in our class, and we can assess them in three minutes each (which is tough) we are spending 90 min alone on speech assessment.  That’s a period and a half!  During this time, we have to design something else for them to do…and good luck having 29 kids– whose teacher is “distracted” by sitting in the corner assessing speech– staying on task for 60 minutes.
  3. We already know how well they speak.  If we are doing regular PQA– personalised questions and answers (basically, asking the class members the same questions we are asking the actors)– we know exactly how well each kid can talk.  So why waste time with a formal assessment?  In my Spanish 1 right now, Ronnie can only do y/n answers to questions, while Emma Watson (aka Kauthr) speaks fluid sentences, and so does Riya, while Sadhna mixes up present and past tense in her output (but understands tense differences in questions) etc.
    Indeed, this is where feedback to the teacher is useful. If—in the PQA moment—I see that Sadhna mixes up past and present in answers, I can guide PQA around that right then and there.
  4. In terms of bang-for-buck, we are going to get way more results from more input than from assessing speech.  We acquire language not by practising talking etc, but by processing input, as Bill VanPatten endlessly reminds us.  I used to do regular “speaking tests” and they did nothing and the info was useless.  Now, I never test speaking until the end of the course, and the kids speak better, mostly because the wasted time now goes into input.
  5. A question that comes up here, regarding assessing speech post-Internado, is, what are we testing the kids on?  Are they expected to remember content— names, events, “facts” etc– from the show?  Or are we assessing speech generally?  In my opinion, “content” should be off-limits: we are building language ability, not recall.In terms of language ability, one of the problems with assessing right after specific content (eg some of El Internado) is that, since this input is generally not very targeted, we don’t have much of a guarantee that the kids are getting enough exposure (in a period or two) to “master” or acquire anything new.  This is to say, while an episode may be 90- or even 100% comprehensible, thanks to the teacher’s guidance etc, it almost does not focus on a specific vocab set.  In a classic T.P.R.S. story, the teacher makes sure to restrict (shelter) vocab used in order to maximise the number of times each word/phrase/etc is used.

    This is whether s/he has a plan, or, as in totally “untargeted” story creation à la Ben Slavic, the kids are totally driving the bus.  As a result, the odds of the kids picking up specific “stuff” from the story—in the short term, which is the focus of the question– are greater (and greater still if the asked story is followed by reading, Movietalk and Picturetalk) than if the input is familiar but untargeted.

  6. What about the kid who missed some of (in this case) El Internado? If the speaking assessment focuses on Internado-specific vocab, it would (in my opinion) be unfair to ask Johnny who was there for all three periods and Maninder, who missed two of three periods, to do the same thing with the “language content” of the episodes.
  7.  Kids hate speaking and tests.  Anything I can do to avoid tests, or putting people on the spot– which a one-on-one test does– I do.  This is what Johnny looks like when you tell him, speaking test tomorrow:Image result for kid being interviewed by teacher
    (image:  Youtube)
  8. “Authentic content” eg El Internado has lots of low-frequency vocabulary. Sure, the teacher can keep things comprehensible, but there is inevitably kids’ mental bandwidth going into processing low-freq vocab…which is exactly what kids don’t need in a speaking assessment, where you want high-freq vocabulary that is easy to recall and applicable to lots of topics.

Anyway…this is why I save speaking assessment until the end of the course: I know how well my kids can speak, I can adjust aural input where it matters– right now–, I don’t want assessment to detract from input, and speaking assessment doesn’t really help me or my kids.




Problem solved!

Today on Twitter there were some memes posted from a languages conference. Said memes are language-teacher jokes about ideas and frustrations. The poster has done us a favour: these nicely illustrate things that are simply not issues for C.I. teachers. Check it:

First, we have this complaint about those dunder-headed Administators, putting native speakers in poor Monsieur Tabernac’s Français Nivel 1 classe:

For us C.I. teachers, this is not a problem: NSs can act in stories, help with PQA modeling, and peer tutor. They speak and understand well– ahhhhhh, one less kid to test, ahhhhhh– so all we really have to do is assess reading & writing, which is easy. And when they have finished reading all the C.I. novels and Bex news, they can do hwk from other classes. Problem? 

Next, something we used to see when we used legacy methods:

Why do students use Google translate? Because the teacher is asking them to do something they can’t (yet) do.  In a T.P.R.S. class, this doesn’t happen: most writing is quick and done in class, and students merely have to use the vocab from stories.  No need to Google “if I had had the right amount of money, I would have bought the ochre flared pants to match the mauve clogs.” 

Next, we have this:

The joke here is, of course, on the writer, who seems to think that a pointless activity– assessing for proficiency at any time other than at the very end of the course– is better than another pointless activity, crosswords. 

Proficiency, bla bla bla: the only way to develop it is via lots of input, and no feedback of any kind other than “focus in class and when reading, and ask for clarification when you get confused” is going to do anything for students.  

End of year/school? Great, assess Johnny and tell him where he’s at in ACTFL or CEFR terms; I’m sure he’ll be STOKED about learning Blablabian after you tell him your number is __ out of ___ which is not as terrible a number as it could be but hey it could also be better, not here and now obviously 😜

Finally, we have this whine about the dreaded ______ grammatical feature that English doesn’t have, in this case the subjunctive:

Why have some teachers decided to complain about this? Because they treat language like a set of discrete skills and the “hardest” skills therefore are the least-well acquired.  

We know this: the brain does not acquire language in thematic or grammar-unit “sets,” or follow what we teachers call “rules,” as Bill VanPatten has repeatedly shown. We also know that the subjunctive– for, say, Spanish speakers– is not a seldom used or late-acquired tense. 

If we as teachers start presenting the subjunctive– or whatever seems “non-Englishy”– as soon as possible, and don’t treat it like winning a gold medal i.e. only a few can do it, and don’t treat it as a rule but rather as just another part of talk and stories, why, English (or whatever)-speaking kids will pick it up, just like their Salvadorean and Bolivian peers do. 

Anyway, if these memes apply to you, worry you, etc, fear not: good C.I. will solve most of your problems, and be loads of fun for your kids.