Assessing Writing Blog Post

Using course book material to assess young learners’ writing skills

Young learners have a very different learning profile to adults and function at different levels cognitively, socially and emotionally. This suggests we should assess them by reflecting their specific ways of learning and learning needs. The writing skill can often be one of the most challenging skills for young learners, so the more accessible we can make any assessment tasks the better. Here we consider how we can use familiar course book material to create writing assessment tasks.

What do we need to consider when assessing young learners?

  • Self-esteem: we need to be careful that tasks are fair and reasonable and make students feel better about their skills and their relationship to learning
  • Cognitive level: we need to make sure that any assessment task is fair given the cognitive level of the young learners we are teaching. This means making sure writing tasks, for example, assess more holistic features not just language points and also ensuring that any task set is well within the cognitive understanding and experience of the young learners.
  • Relationship with L1: Young learners may have limited experience with writing in their L1(s) so assessment tasks in English may be limited by this or repetitive. We can use variation by assessing different features each time we do a task.
  • Bias for best: it is very important that young learners experience success. We can set up assessment tasks for success by making sure the learners are allowed plenty of planning and preparation time.

What are we aiming to assess when we assess young learners’ writing?

When we assess writing we typically focus on defined features, such as the message (task), grammar and vocabulary, organization, neatness or legibility, complexity/length of sentences, and appropriacy for the reader. These features may be less useful and potentially unfair for young learners who may not be able to employ the rather sophisticated cognitive skills (e.g. not understanding the different features or a sense of audience), and who may have very different experiences in their L1s. 

There are other features we can assess in young learners if we take a more holistic approach that is probably more appropriate to the way they are learning, rather than specific.

Here are a few:

  • Speed of tackling task, e.g. how fast or how carefully?
  • Number of attempts, e.g. do they spend too much or too little time getting right?
  • Ability/willingness to improve, e.g. their focus on more planning or rewriting.
  • Attitude/enthusiasm, e.g. behavioral features that may affect learning
  • Use of wider knowledge: for older young learners, how willing are they to utilize what they know in their real world?

Before doing any assessment, it’s essential to think carefully about the purpose of the assessment so we can ensure we assess appropriate features. Preferably the assessment plan should be shared with learners not only to get them engaged but also to help them develop autonomous learning.

What is the process we should follow when designing a writing assessment task?

  1. Decide the need for or purpose of the assessment
  2. Decide which criteria you will use for the task
  3. Share the purpose and criteria with young learners
  4. Allow oral planning time
  5. Share ideas across class so all have lots of material
  6. Students do the task, together or individually
  7. Assess the task according to the agreed criteria only
  8. Give students the opportunity to repeat the task, either for a 2nd assessment OR for their portfolio

When designing a writing task for assessment, it’s a good idea to use ideas that learners have already covered in the coursebook they are using.

What are the benefits of exploiting coursebook material?

  • Learners are familiar with the topic and focus
  • Any activities have already been levelled and created by an experienced team
  • Repeating material feeds into success and helps embed learning
  • Helps learners see the real-world relevance of vocabulary and grammar learning
  • Can help teach learners transferable skills

How can we exploit course book material?

When creating writing tasks from previously studied material, make sure the assessment criteria focuses on a communicative writing skill and not, for example, accuracy, which you can address when doing the original activity or follow up. Also try to exploit the coursebook activity by focusing on integrated skills so that one skill feeds into another, e.g. exploiting a listening activity to generate writing as in real life. Remember to always allow planning and discussion time before learners write.

  • Vocabulary: once a vocabulary activity has been completed, ask learners to write a short dialogue, perhaps using language from lessons earlier in their course. When assessing the task make sure you focus on assessing their communicative writing not, for example, spelling which you will have already covered when doing the vocabulary activity.
  • Grammar: after completing a grammar activity in class, ask students to put sentences together into a story, either by themselves or from options you give them. When assessing focus on, e,g. orthography or order of information depending on their level.

For the following integrated skills, it’s a good idea to do the assessment task a week or so after the original activity.

  • Reading into writing: after completing and understanding a reading text in class ask learners to write notes or a summary. They can check with another student or group until they get their best version. Assess, for example, speed or ordering or completeness rather than accuracy.
  • Listening into writing: after completing and understanding a listening text in class, ask learners to agree a set of notes and write a play or dialogue or summary. Assess, e.g. their clarity or ordering of information or completeness.
  • Speaking into writing: after completing a speaking activity in class, ask learners to write something similar, e.g. a poem, a presentation, a description. Assess, for example, learners’ enthusiasm or collaboration or number of attempts to get ‘success’.
  • Functional language: after practicing functional language in class, give them a writing task where they might use this language. Discuss as class likely contexts or scenarios and give them opportunity to write dialogue or written genre depending on their level. Assess learners on, for example, logic or linking or speed.

Summary

  • Think about the timing of a writing assessment after the original activity
  • Allow plenty of planning time; always prepare orally (e.g. in class or pairs)
  • Give ‘improvement’ chances BEFORE writing – orally or written
  • Make sure what you decided to assess matches well with the type of task you are setting
  • Agree with learners what you are going to assess
  • Give repeat chances after first writing attempt to build success
  • Feedback holistically: focus on writing purpose rather than micro-details

Watch Elaine’s Boyd’s full webinar on using course book material to assess young learners’ writing skills HERE.

Author: Elaine Boyd

Elaine has been working in language assessment for over 30 years working for a range of international exam boards. She has written several exam coursebooks for primary and secondary learners for leading international publishers. She has also developed courses in assessment literacy and formative assessment for teachers and teacher trainers. She conducts research into issues in classroom assessment and feedback and has a particular focus on primary learners. Elaine is a series consultant for Look , a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning.

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