Assessment is an essential element of the teaching and learning process. Its principal purpose is to provide the teacher with continuous detailed information about children's knowledge, their grasp of concepts and their mastery of skills. This, in turn, can lead to a greater understanding of the child and his/her needs, and can help the teacher to design appropriate learning activities that will enable the child to gain maximum benefit from the English curriculum. This cyclic process of learning, assessment, identifying individual needs, evaluating teaching strategies and planning future learning experiences is central to effective teaching and learning.
As language is a central feature of the learning process in every area of the curriculum the assessment of the child's language development and his/her learning through language can be monitored not just in English but in many other learning activities. In this way assessment in English contributes to, and is a factor of, assessment in the other curriculum areas and helps provide a holistic view of the child's development.
The role of assessment: why assess?
Assessment can be used to monitor the rate of children's language development and the effectiveness with which they are using language to learn. It provides the teacher with the means of identifying the needs of individual children and enables him/her to modify curriculum content, to create the learning contexts and to adopt the teaching strategies that will facilitate effective learning. Used like this, assessment has a formative role to play in children's development. It can also be used to indicate areas of learning difficulty in particular children. These can include weaknesses in general language development and a failure to acquire language skills. Crucial among these will be the acquisition of literacy skills. In identifying children with such language problems assessment has a diagnostic role to play.
In using assessment for formative and diagnostic purposes the teacher can build a cumulative picture of the child's language development in the four strands of the curriculum. This will contribute to the profile of the child's development and form a basis for reporting to teachers, parents and others. This is the summative use of assessment. The teacher can also use assessment to evaluate his/her mediation of the curriculum to the children. This involves monitoring the effectiveness and balance of curriculum content, and the various strategies, contexts and resources employed to advance the children's language and literacy development. In this way assessment can help the teacher to plan the most effective learning experiences for the child.
Assessment in the English curriculum: what should be assessed?
Assessment in English is concerned with monitoring the success with which children learn through an engagement with the four strands of the curriculum. This entails a consideration of the wide spectrum of learning that is envisaged in the strands and will include much more than the assessment of what have been traditionally seen as language skills, although these will still constitute an integral part of the assessment process.
The overall aim of the English curriculum is to enable children to learn language and to learn through language. Assessment will, therefore, focus on learning activities that are envisaged in each of the strands.
Receptiveness to language
In gauging the child's receptiveness to language, for example, the teacher will take account of such things as his/her ability to engage in an appropriate listener-speaker relationship, to respond to non-verbal cues, to follow directions and to understand ideas and to appreciate different ways in which language is used.
Competence and confidence in using language
Competence and confidence in using language will be assessed through monitoring the child's mastery of oral language, reading and writing skills.
Oral language ability can be measured in terms of the success with which he/she is able to listen, talk about experiences, present ideas, give and take turns, initiate and conclude conversations, and perform social functions using language.
The success of the child's engagement with reading will be a reflection of his/her mastery of reading skills and strategies, the ability to comprehend text and respond to it, and the range of his/her reading.
The child's competence in writing can be monitored through the competence with which he/she can write clearly and expressively on a range of topics, in a variety of genres, for different audiences and with reasonable control of the conventions of grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Developing cognitive abilities through language
The extent to which a child's cognitive abilities are developed through language will be seen in his/her ability to focus on detail and be explicit about it, to use language in order to elaborate, qualify, modify and explain ideas, and to discuss solutions to problems. It will also be apparent in his/her ability to discuss a point of view, to argue, to summarise, to justify opinions and to use questions. The competence with which the child can use comprehension strategies to reconstruct the meaning of text and to use information retrieval skills in order to gain access to new information will also be an indicator of the child's developing cognitive abilities.
Emotional and imaginative development through language
The child's emotional and imaginative development can be monitored through his/her ability to express feelings and reactions and to formulate and articulate imaginative ideas. Other indicators will be the success with which he/she responds to fiction and poetry and relates both of these to personal experience, the quality of personal reactions to literature, and the ability to write stories and poetry.
Assessment tools: how to assess
The above range of learning activity (and it is merely a summary of what the curriculum contains) presupposes a variety of assessment tools. These will form a continuum ranging from the less structured forms of assessment to more highly structured methods and will include
teacher-designed tasks and tests
work samples, portfolios and projects
Each of these has a contribution to make in helping to monitor individual children's rates of progress and levels of attainment as they engage with the English curriculum. Used together they constitute a multi-dimensional strategy which can enable the teacher to identify particular learning needs and design appropriate teaching strategies.
This is the form of assessment most consistently used by teachers. It involves the informal monitoring of children's progress as the actual learning process takes place. In observing the varying degrees of success with which children acquire and master different skills, concepts and elements of knowledge teachers continually adjust their methodological approaches and modify learning contexts as they teach.
Much of this observation is concerned with detailed and immediate learning activity and is unrecorded. However, it can be useful to make brief notes from time to time about particular learning requirements. This can be a further help to the teacher in taking account of the progress of the class, a group or an individual at any particular juncture and can inform his/her planning of short-term and long-term teaching strategies .
Teacher-designed tasks and tests
A further dimension of this type of continuing assessment is the monitoring of children's performance in various tasks arising from their engagement with the curriculum. For example, the extent to which a child is able to self-correct a piece of writing can indicate the degree to which he/she has attained a control of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Similarly, after discussion of a text, the teacher might ask the children to summarise it. He/she could then evaluate the various summaries and assess the level of the children's mastery of summarisation skills. This could then provide the basis for planning future work in this area.
This type of monitoring will take a more planned form when the teacher sets a test to measure some element of learning. This can arise directly from and, indeed, be a part of a particular learning activity. Alternatively it might take the form of different tests the teacher might design to monitor children's grasp of some concept or their ability to use certain skills. For example, the teacher might choose to test children's ability to use some of the higher comprehension skills by giving them a written test. Similarly, asking senior class children to write without re-drafting on a given topic can indicate the extent to which they are able to write independently.
The teacher will have occasion to use tasks and tests frequently as a means of assessing children's progress in all the strands.
Work samples, portfolios and projects
By compiling samples of the work of individual children in the class a cumulative record of their performance in the different areas of the English curriculum can be created. For assessment purposes, a representative sample of a child's work which would include some of the best examples would be of greatest use. In English, such a portfolio might include such elements as samples of personal writing, records of individual children's reading and their reactions to it, records of oral presentations made, a record of poetry read and written, and projects that have been completed.
The question of manageability will be a significant factor in deciding how much of the child's work might be included, although in English this will be less problematical since the portfolio will consist mainly of items in written form. However, since the child will have similar portfolios in other areas of the curriculum the question of storage will arise. Obviously, circumstances will vary from school to school and the nature, size and management of portfolios will be a factor of school planning.
However such issues are dealt with, work samples and portfolios can contribute to a picture of the child's development over a period and can facilitate discussion between teacher and parent and between teacher and pupil in relation to his/her language activity and learning.
Teachers' continuing informal observation of children's progress can be structured more formally through the use of pupil profiles. These entail short descriptive statements of pupil achievements, behaviour and attitudes in relation to language learning and learning through language. They may be standardised for different levels of competence and used to check children's individual ability in relation to each of the statements. In the case of English they would reflect the child's progress in relation to elements of the four strands, enable the teacher to construct a learning profile of each individual child, and create a reference record of his/her progress.
Children's ability in relation to statements or descriptors like
- understands left-right, top-bottom orientation
- can sustain a conversation
- can use table of contents and index to retrieve information
- can summarise ideas
could be graded as established, developing, or not yet established.
Teachers will readily recognise a child who is having difficulty with any particular aspect of language development through day-to-day classroom observation. Early screening tests can be given to children who exhibit language development that is significantly below the norm for their age in order to establish the level of difficulty that the child is experiencing. Detailed information about the child's ability in reading, for example, can be acquired using miscue analysis. This is done by recording the child's miscues when reading a suitable piece of text and using these as indicators of his/her stage of development in reading and comprehension. Such screening should be followed by a range of diagnostic tests that will identify the precise nature of the difficulty. Appropriate remedial support can then be provided to maximise the child's language learning potential.
In the course of the assessment process it is important to identify children who have a language disorder or more general visual or hearing problems. These and children who continue to exhibit difficulties despite optimal teaching and support should be referred, at the earliest opportunity, to the appropriate agency for specialist psychological or medical assessment and treatment.
The early identification and screening of children with language difficulties is very important. It is suggested that the best time for this will be early in the second term in senior infants, when the majority of children have begun to acquire basic reading skills.
Teachers should take into account critical variables such as the age, language competence, physical ability and pre-enrolment record of the child as well as the results of diagnostic testing when deciding on intervention to prevent reading or other language failure. This will entail a process of consultation that will involve the class teacher, the previous class teacher, the remedial teacher, the principal and parents. Parents are a particularly valuable source of information in the initial stages of problem identification. Children's achievement and progress ought to be monitored regularly and any modifications in remedial intervention that are necessary should be made.
It is essential that the assessment of children with learning difficulties is seen as formative and is, therefore, geared to the development of a programme that will cater for individual needs. It is important that teachers and parents recognise that children perform at different levels and that a child's progress and achievement will not always conform to the norm but vary according to individual strengths and abilities. The use of an appropriate range of assessment tools can indicate these areas of strengths and weaknesses. It is equally important that under-achieving gifted pupils benefit from a learning programme appropriate to their needs in order that they may realise their full potential.
These tests are already widely used in schools. They are norm-referenced or criterion-referenced and are traditionally associated with reading, comprehension and writing skills. In assessing the child's mastery of these skills the teacher is provided with a measurement of ability that is related either to age or to a standardised percentile scale. In this way they can quantify the extent to which the child is performing in relation to particular language skills and confirm less precise judgements made using the more informal assessment tools. Standardised tests contribute to the accuracy of the teacher's monitoring and help to identify the needs of individual children and the appropriate learning targets they require. School planning and classroom planning should facilitate the standardised testing of children periodically during the course of schooling and as part of a wider assessment process.
A balanced approach to assessment
The principal function of assessment is to provide the teacher with an accurate picture of the child's language development. This will enable him/her to create the learning contexts and design the teaching strategies most appropriate to the needs of individual pupils. A great proportion of the teacher's assessment will involve the use of less structured methods and will be an integral part of the teaching process. Assessment techniques like observation, teacher-designed tasks and tests and the use of work samples and/or portfolios are, by their nature, subjective. It is important, therefore, that teachers moderate their standards and criteria against a broader base of teacher experience. Staff discussion and school-based in-career development can help to provide the teacher with a wider perspective and more objective standards of reference for these forms of assessment.
In using the more structured forms of assessment and in recording the results of assessment generally it is important to ensure that only a minimum of pupil-teacher time is involved. In particular, the design of curriculum profiles should be such as to facilitate the easy recording of the maximum amount of information. It is important also that children have some experience of doing tests before any information about language development is extrapolated from them.
Recording and communicating
By using an appropriate range of the different assessment tools the teacher can monitor children's language development. If this monitoring process is to be effective it is important that he/she adopts a method of recording the relevant information in an accessible form that is compatible with assessment in other areas of the curriculum. This will facilitate continuing communication with the principal, other members of staff and parents. It will also assist the teacher in eliciting feed-back from parents that will enable him/her to plan more effectively language learning programmes for individual children.
Pupil profile cards
Over a period the teacher can construct a comprehensive profile that will constitute a summative record of an individual child's language development. This should be adjusted and updated on a regular basis. It will help determine long-term learning strategies and ensure consistency in the child's development from year to year. It will also contribute to a cumulative assessment of the child and facilitate communication with parents and with other agencies.