Webinar - ACTFL - Assessing Communication

By Paul Sandrock posted 09-27-2010 22:15


Webinar 2010 – Assessing Communication

This is the fourth posting to follow-up to the ACTFL Webinar titled “Assessing Communication:  How Do You Know When Your Students Are Making Progress?”   This completes the responses to questions posted during the webinar.  Your comments and ideas are welcomed.

1.  Question posed during the webinar:

Are there textbooks or pre-packaged curriculum that really are backward-designed?  Is this something teachers do individually?  What is in place to help us?

One element that makes backward-design so effective is the reflection and engagement in thinking about one’s goals.  Knowing one’s goals and being able to state them in performance terms implies that the teacher uses a curriculum or textbook thoughtfully and with analysis of what students need to accomplish the performance goals.  This does not mean having to work without a textbook, but to use one’s textbook and all other materials as means to achieve the communication goals.  I also suggest finding colleagues to support you in this work, like using the ACTFL Online Community to discuss what you are trying and ask for others to help you reflect on how to put in place a backward-designed approach.

2.  Question posed during the webinar:

I have some trouble starting a unit.  How do I go about teaching vocabulary?  Do I teach grammar at all?  After I design a unit and the assessments, how do I go about giving students the tools to complete the tasks?

Remember, backward-design does not mean just expecting students to magically start having interpersonal conversations.  The approach is to identify what the performance looks and sounds like, for students at the given language level.  The next step is to identify the activities that will help students practice the vocabulary, grammar, and language functions, and improve in the skills required in that final performance targeted for the unit.  The final step in the planning cycle is to be specific about the tools students need for the performance task (what will be practiced through the unit’s activities): vocabulary, grammar, and language functions.  Rather than NOT teaching vocabulary and grammar, it is doing so with a specific purpose in mind.  This helps you get started, because you know the context in which students will use these words.  Your first activities start students on that path.  For example, if they are going to have a conversation in which they try to find out who has the busiest schedule, you might begin with a poll of what classes and activities students engage in – teaching the vocabulary and asking the question about who does them; then charting them; and then having students identify who is the busiest from that list.  Many different activities to learn and practice these language elements will help students be successful in the final performance expected.

3.  Question posed during the webinar:

I know it is desirable to allow students to just answer the question.  I often feel as though I want complete sentences, so I can assess if they can really use the language correctly.  How do I go about making sure they can handle basic skills of conjugation and word order and not hinder their interpersonal communication?

Consider again the idea presented in the webinar of envisioning assessments on a continuum trying to achieve different objectives.  Some are focused learning checks that provide information on very specific language elements (vocabulary, grammar, or language functions).  In learning checks, you can create assessments in which you will have evidence of students using complete sentences.  You also want to design formative assessments in which students manipulate and show more control of language elements and help students work toward the expected summative performance assessment. 

Thinking about the different modes of communication also provides a route to obtaining evidence of students’ ability to use complete sentences.  Presentational communication requires a high degree of accuracy and completeness because the opportunity to negotiate meaning is not there.  Interpersonal communication flows more easily and fluently when accuracy exists; however, students need to be ready to negotiate meaning when a lack of accuracy or vocabulary blocks understanding.  There is nothing incorrect about less than complete sentences in the interpersonal mode of communication, so we need to encourage students to be engaged in the conversation and to focus on expressing and negotiating meaning more than focusing on complete sentences.

4.  Question posed during the webinar:

What are your thoughts about grouping:  should we group students of a higher level with those of a lower level?  Is it more beneficial to group students together with students of the same ability?  Does this change the outcome of the performance?

Evidence from the ACTFL Integrated Performance Assessment pilot sites showed that matching students’ by proficiency level was not the factor that determined success.  A critical factor was having the right criteria for the feedback (on the rubric).  When the students were alerted to the need to ask as many questions as they could, to follow-up and pursue a topic, to find out as much as they could from their partner, and to provide as much information as they can, a student can demonstrate all of these characteristics of highly effective interpersonal communication even with a partner who provides little in response.  To be ready for such an assessment, students need to have practiced demonstrating these behaviors through frequent pair activities in class, keeping the conversation spontaneous, and making sure that students regularly converse with different partners.

5.  Question posed during the webinar:

What does the “Kind” category include (from TALK Scores)?

TALK Score is a strategy designed by Richard Donato and described by Eileen Glisan and Judith Shrum in Teacher’s Handbook:  Contextualized Language Instruction (2005).  Students in an interpersonal performance are evaluated on four criteria that spell out “TALK”:

T = Talking in the Target Language (talking and trying to communicate with relevant language)

A = Accurate (performing with an acceptable level accuracy; demonstrating the language target, e.g., grammar, vocabulary, language function)

L = Listening (evidence of listening to one’s partner, staying on task)

K = Kind (evidence of being kind and cooperative, working with one’s partner or group; the opposite is killing the activity by not cooperating)