How do I assess?

This is year 26 teaching French for me and I continue to grow in my understanding of how we acquire language.   At the start of this academic year,  I changed how I plan, how I spend time with my students and how I assess. I’ve been pondering the assessment piece for several years now.  My method in the past has been a variation of:

  • participation, homework completion, quizzes, and projects

But as I have learned more about teaching with ‘comprehensible input’ or CI, I have grown in knowing how humans actually acquire language.  My goal THIS year more clearly centers on skill development.  And in examining how I’ve actually evaluated students in the past, I’ve had to admit that my previous grading does not match my current goal for my students. Hence a need to ‘assess’ how I assess!

In previous years homework and participation have been filler grades and have accounted for 60 % of a student’s final grade.  Thus I have assessed work habits and attitude, not what students can do with French.

Lest you think that quizzes and projects have accurately shown what students can do, these tools have instead measured how well students can memorize language or adhere to a rubric.

Attending ACTFL 2016 in Boston last year changed my teaching because I heard Professor Bill Van Patten from Michigan State University co-present with Dr. Stephen Krashen.  Already for 12 + years, I had been practicing a proficiency-based method called TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling).  But the perspective I gained last November shifted my path even more.

Bill Van Patten hosts a weekly podcast called Tea with BVP in which he shares CI theory and practices.  Reading his latest book has reinforced this input-based methodology (“Repetition is the mother of learning”).  Listening to the podcast as I commute to and from school has helped me almost daily improve my instruction AND assessments.

So how have I changed up my assessment?  I’m not saying this is perfect, but it certainly is better and more in line with my purpose – my teleos for my classes.  I want my middle school students to understand and speak French.  So I now assess primarily for comprehension and somewhat for production.

If Dr. Van Patten and CI theory are correct than the L2 learner has to hear and understand the meaning of each particular chunk of language, whether a word or phrase, 70 to 160 times before it is hard-wired into the brain for him to produce the language.  But fewer than the 70-160 reps will suffice for complete comprehension.  So I have assessed MORE comprehension and LESS production (speaking).  For example:

  • Recently with beginning 6th graders, I spent a couple of days showing and talking to them about my family – a sort of genealogy.  They heard and saw (and I defined) content about my grandparents, parents, husband, kids, grandchildren, and cats.  I engaged them about their own particular families, keeping everything comprehensible.  Then on the 3rd day, I gave them a spot, unannounced comprehension test where I had statements about me and my family with both correct and incorrect versions.  Students had to circle the correct statement that applied to the person.

For example:  ‘My son is in the Army/ My mom is in the Army.

The contrasting statements were obvious enough for anyone to select the correct one without having to have retained a whole lot of personal information about me.  If a student understood the meaning of the words, he would do well.  And all did!

When I evaluated them, I had not decided whether this would be a formative/practice assessment or a ‘real’ / summative one.  I decided to see what the results would be.  And since they all did very well, I counted it as a fair representation of what they actually could understand.

Do I have everything sorted out and planned ahead?  By no means!  I have 3 levels of French and one enrichment class for 5th graders.  This new system is like a Beta version.  But already I like what I see.  And I am VERY energized.  That is the added blessing.  I needed a challenge and I feel a sense of integrity that how I am teaching and assessing is more accurate.

I’ll write more about this throughout the year.  I still have so much to learn as a French teacher.




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