When I first became a teacher I handed out study guides for tests, sent notes home telling parents to remind kids to study, and spent time reviewing in class. Over the last 11 years in the classroom, my attitude has changed significantly on this topic. In fact, now I don’t even announce a test ahead of time, and although we discuss correct answers, students do not generally get individual results (though I would at a parent or student request). Why has this changed so radically? Read below to find out more…
I believe the main goal of assessment data should be to improve student learning. Especially when learning a language, there is a lot of information to cover. All of my research both about the way the brain functions and about how students learn languages, points to the fact that if you want the kids to learn something involving lots of memorization (like a language) you need to make acquisition both important and fun.
When students feel anxiety about learning the language, they don’t do well. The brain doesn’t work as well when we are truly anxious. A little bit of stress (like in a slightly competitive game played in class), is good for learning and brain function. A lot of anxiety is not. As a science minor and educator, I have always had a special fascination about the function of the brain, and have taken many classes, and read many books about our brains and how they work. Brain research backs up the importance of a desire to learn, having a purpose, and it being fun, as necessary components for maximizing learning. I often use this information about how the brain works, in my classroom management, and lesson structure.
After several years of teaching Spanish, and comparing the way my middle school students learned, to the way the elementary kids learned, I’ve noticed a major difference based on the way the systems require the students to learn the information. The upper level Spanish moves at a very fast pace, with frequent quizzes and tests. When students receive vocabulary lists and grammar rules they have to study these for long hours before high stakes quizzes and tests and they are anxious about it. Generally speaking, spending lots of time trying to memorize grammar rules is not fun for students. This anxiety, combined with a boring task that your brain doesn’t want to do, only stores the information in short term memory. This meant that when I asked my middle school students to answer a question (how are you?), or recall a word verbally, they had to seriously think about it. Lower to mid-range students often had a hard time retrieving the word from their memory at all. Doing the Spanish the way we are at elementary (making it fun, connecting it to student interests so they want to learn the language, teaching the kids phrases they can use to communicate with each other, etc.) puts the information in long term memory.
When I ask most of the elementary students ‘how are you?’ they can respond quickly and naturally. Even struggling learners respond quickly and naturally if I give them a cue to help them retrieve the information (for example, I would say ‘happy’ in Spanish, or smile/make a sad face, depending on the level of cue the student needed). The students needing a cue will respond with other emotions too, not just the one I gave them. Even more importantly, all of the students keep working and keep trying, nobody is giving up, and learning a language is a hard task. In contrast, at the middle school, even the highest-performing students in a class would have a hard time remembering information learned a few months before.
When I assess, I want to test what has made it to long term memory. Therefore, I never tell the students when a test is coming up. I make it low pressure (I tell the students I am mainly measuring whether we have learned enough on the current topic and can move on, or whether we need more practice). While I don’t make the test a big deal, I try to make the test rigorous. I assessed over 40 vocabulary items from the year, and ask students in 1st-3rd grade to illustrate a new story and answer comprehension questions about the story in Spanish. In addition, I added comprehension questions about a chapter in a book I had read to students. Since the goal of the class is to make the students able to communicate in Spanish, I decided to grade for meaning when grading comprehension questions and story drawings. Although this testing paints a pretty complete picture about what the student understands, this is just one way I assess students. I also assess them during stories based on their response time, how they respond to things I ask them to do, how they answer questions, how they communicate in class, etc. There are MANY ways a student can show understanding of a language without saying or writing anything down. I constantly assess student progress, and change the pace of the class to match students’ needs.
After testing, I use the information to show me what we may need to practice more, who might need a bit of extra help, and who needs to be challenged. When I first started testing students this way, I was surprised to see that not ONE student asked me to see their actual scores, but many students told me they felt good about the test and thought they had done a great job. Some even cheer when they see the computers set up for a testing day!
Afterwards, I make sure to tell the kids they did a good job on the test (I give a Spanish sticker or prize privately to the kids that get 100%), but I don’t show students the actual scores (though I would go over them with a parent at their request). Happy learners are learners that are willing to keep trying, even with a large task in front of them. Seeing lots of mistakes is very discouraging. I have the information, and know who needs more help, and that is what is important. Parents are contacted if there are large concerns, and I do talk to students about behavior or participation problems (though I don’t usually have too many). I have enjoyed great success with this method and get a lot of effort from my learners. This also does not mean that students don’t receive feedback. We do many writing and reading projects that I work with them on, and give them feedback on, but I feel that I get the best information from my assessments about what students have actually learned and internalized when I do it in this manner.
Kindergarten is assessed with a 35 question matching test that includes coloring circles the correct color, and matching pictures to vocabulary phrases. This is a great way for me to confirm that kindergarten students are beginning to acquire the language, and is helpful for sending up red flags (though I don’t get too many). This is good, because the kindergarten students are just starting to verbalize the language independently, and research shows that it is important not to push this stage. A matching test is a good way for them to show me what they know in a non-stressful manner. I only do this test at 2nd and 3rd trimester. At first trimester I do a more basic test by watching how they respond to classroom commands, and asking them to touch certain color crayons. They are so new to the language at that point that I don’t want to make it stressful, and they don’t know enough to assess more in the above manner quite yet. I know which students are native speakers, and I assess them authentically in class (by varying the level of complexity of what I say in my speech to them, and seeing what they can respond to).
Erica Peplinski is entering her 12th year of teaching; and loves working with her Spanish students using TPRS/CI and brain based learning techniques. When she is not working she loves spending time with her friends and family, reading, the beach, and Michigan Football. Erica teaches in Saline, MI and blogs at profepeplinski.com.