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Teaching Tips 115

What's up Doc?
Quick & easy
placement testing
Up front

Doctor
What's up Doc?

Last week we looked at a way of giving placement tests to a large number of students. Placement tests are just one of the tests that we deal with as teachers. Others include:

- progress tests - given during the course to gauge progress.
- achievement tests - given at the end of the course to see how well the students have achieved overall.
- proficiency tests - such as the external English language exams such as the Cambridge suite of exams - the PET, First Certificate, CAE & Proficiency.

Then there is the informal test that we give at the beginning of a course, the diagnostic test. After the placement tests the students are allocated a class & in the first few lessons the teacher needs to see what level each student has, & the level of the group as a whole. This obviously enables her to pitch the lessons more accurately, but it also enables students to change groups if they find themselves in a group that is too easy or too challenging.

Placement tests are by no means infallible. On going into a language school a student is asked to perform in English, usually through grammar & oral tests. She may not have spoken English for many years & find it very difficult to recall much. The student is then allocated a class based on this evidence. After the first few classes a lot of English will come back to her & she may find herself in the wrong level. So finding this out quickly benefits everyone; the student can get in to an appropriate level & get on with developing her English & the teacher can get on with teaching the group. There's nothing worse than realising that a student should have moved group at the beginning of the course after three or four months of lessons.

A diagnostic test is usually an informal one that tests all skills & language areas. Coursebooks from mid-intermediate & upwards typically have the first unit as a general one that serves this diagnostic purpose. There might be texts on learning English, exercises on reviewing tenses, a freer writing task & some speaking activities.

While you are testing your students like this, it might be an idea to ask them not to write in the coursebook as, if there is a discrepancy in level, they may have to move groups & use another coursebook. If they haven't written in it, they can exchange it for another.

Taking the idea of the diagnostic test further, we could base our course design on this. In our teaching we are constantly diagnosing the strengths & weaknesses of our students, so if we design the next month on what the students really need, we are taking a 'process' approach. We are responding to their current needs & responding in what we cover in the course. This is different to using a coursebook as the 'product' has already been stated by whatever is to be covered in the coursebook. This process approach, can involve more work & is not for all levels of teacher experience, but it is, however, the most relevant one for our students. So put the proverbial stethoscope on & get diagnosing.

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Dictate_pattern
Quick & easy
placement testing

You might be about to start intensive courses & contemplating all the placement testing before you can get the actual course going. If you are faced with 300 students, traditional placement testing can take ages.

So instead of the usual written gap fill/multiple choice & oral test, how about giving a dictation? This could consist of ten sentences which go from easy to very difficult. Each sentence should be written out with slashes where we should pause i.e. in tone units. For example one of the (easy) sentences might be: The old man / who lived in Paris / lived round the corner / from his friend Charles.

Divide the students into groups of twenty or so, assign a teacher to each group & give each a copy of the dictation. The teachers follow the tone units when giving the dictation so there is some standardisation.

When the dictations have finished, take in the scripts & mark them, giving a point for each mistake. Then group the scripts into similar marks - 1-5 mistakes, 5-10 mistakes & so on.

So you now have your different groups. Assign a teacher to each one & the teacher, on the first day or so, then decides what level they are & what coursebook to use. Any outstanding misplacements can then be resolved & it is surprising how few changes of students there are.

It all takes a small part of the time that it takes to traditionally test the students, leaving time for the real work.

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In front of the class

Up front

In past Tips we've looked at how to make freer speaking activities as effective as possible through the following:

A: Give the students some planning time. Let them think for a couple of minutes about what they're going to say. This does make it more of a controlled activity but the classroom is a place for rehearsals.

B: Tell the students that after the activity you're going to choose a pair to re-do the activity in front of the class. This will make all of the students pay much more attention to what they are saying - it puts a bit of healthy pressure on.

C: Before the activity focus the stds directly on the language areas you want them to practise - by eliciting or telling. Why wait to see if they can come out with it - just tell them the aim of the activity - e.g. 'I'd like you to use 'going to' to talk about your plans - do you remember we looked at this in the last lesson'. This again will focus them a lot more than just leaving it to chance.

D: While they are doing the activity go round & handout slips of paper to the stds with the bits of language you want them to practise. Give different pieces of language to different stds - in this way you can deal with the different level stds in the group i.e.. Give the more able stds more complex items. You could even give them the paper before beginning with the instruction that they must use their piece of language at least two/three times in the activity.

All excellent techniques for maximising speaking tasks. In the second technique, one pair is asked to do the activity in front of the class. All have been warned that whichever pair could be asked. Do you tend to ask all pairs to act out their roleplays for each other at the end?

The main advantages of everyone performing for each other is that all might learn from each other & also all get a public pat on the back for their efforts. The problems include the amount of time it takes to go through each pair, this time could be usefully put to all speaking in a longer task or a follow up task. If you don't ask all pairs to perform, which pairs do you ask - the stronger ones, the middle level ones, all at some time or other? And do they really get time to learn from each other? Then there is the embarrassment factor for the weaker students. This last point is not to be underestimated. We do ask a lot of our students when they have to perform in front of each other.

With younger learners it's a bit different. They tend not to listen to each other & fidget & generally get impatient until it's their turn. Less in front of the others rather than more for younger learners.

Maybe there is a tendency for teachers to ask their students to perform in front on the class a bit too much. Sometimes it is good for the dynamics of the classroom & at others it can be a bit of wasted time. Worth thinking about next time you plan it.

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