The chatbox as a continuous assessment tool

Without a doubt, the chatbox is one of the most valuable resources teachers have at their disposal in online teaching. It is very simple to use and can add quite a bit of variation to our lessons, while also serving as an important continuous assessment tool if used adequately. In this article, I am going to outline ways in which the chatbox can be used for assessment purposes.

The chatbox as a record of our students’ work

Formative assessment (Hughes 2003) involves recording information collected throughout a course to provide each student with a) a comprehensive view of their current abilities, b) persistent difficulties and progress made. Hence, we can say that chatbox text provides teachers with a written record to assess students’ learning in real-time. Apart from opportunities for error correction, practice and consolidation, the possibility to save the chat after the end of a meeting allows the teacher to look back at the recorded data and use it to inform the marks given.

When posing a question to the whole class and asking students to reply in the chatbox in order to record their answers, a couple of key factors to consider are accuracy of content and form; and perhaps most importantly the time of response, granted that students who answer faster and more accurately in a consistent manner demonstrate greater flexibility in the language, as well as the willingness to take risks and make mistakes which are part and parcel of the learning process. On the other hand, reluctant students might feel their skills are not good enough or simply lack the determination to upskill their language, in which case teachers could look at private messaging as a safer strategy until these students feel more at ease within the group.

But they’ll just copy from each other, right?

During synchronous sessions, one of the main concerns teachers have when using the chatbox is students copying from those who are perceived as stronger in the classroom and that were quicker to type their answers. To tackle this effectively and strike a balance, teachers should train students to give answers within a specific time limit, perhaps with higher marks being attributed to those answering more quickly and accurately in accordance with the teacher’s perception of each student’s skills. Let’s see how this would work using a quick practical example.

Normally we ask our students a question until someone raises their hand. If there is no response we usually nominate someone, or else a student who tends to dominate whole class feedback might jump in inadvertently to give an answer. If either scenario becomes the norm in online lessons, and also when using the chatbox, not only will your pacing be negatively impacted but your students might also feel demotivated as they see their skills are not being fairly assessed. So what can we do to get answers from all students? 3…2…1… Click Enter! Give your students some thinking time before they give an answer and only when they have finished writing start counting down, and instruct them to hit the ‘enter’ button all at the same time. This adds an element of playfulness and surprise to student output while preventing them from changing an answer after seeing their classmates’ replies. This will certainly inform a more precise assessment of each student’s individual responses in a more spontaneous way.

With this practical idea, I would like to wrap up my first of the three entries I have prepared for using the chatbox as a continuous assessment tool! I hope you enjoyed reading it and I’ll see you again next week with the second part which will focus on practical ideas and games using the chatbox!

Reference:

Hughes, A. (2003). Testing for Language Teachers. Cambridge: CUP.

The power of peer observation

This is a subject very close to my heart, but one which is frequently ignored by many training programmes and English schools. Having integrated this into my professional practice since 2015, when I worked in Northern Spain alongside like-minded teachers who were keen to develop, I could see very clearly how peer observation offered great insights into my daily practice, undoubtedly changing it for the better. Since this resembles a professional project, here are my 5W’s and 1H of peer observation.

What, who and why?

In broad terms, peer observation consists of observing fellow teachers in action, which is normally preceded by a chat about lesson aims and the specific group of learners. It is usually recommended that the observee produce a lesson plan or set of notes in accordance with their developmental needs. For instance, if the teacher has a recurring issue with timing, it is important to look at planning and work out how they get through the different lesson stages. However, if the issue is the teacher’s tone of voice and use of hand gestures, a lesson plan might not be as important (even though this particular issue could also be related to classroom management, in which case it would be good to look at interaction patterns, or how instructions are given).     

We can easily understand the key role played by peer observations by looking at the Johari Window. As far as it is concerned, we have four Selves: the Open, the Blind, the Hidden, and the Unknown. While the Open Self is known to us and others, the Unknown Self is not known to anyone. However, being unknown to us but known to others, it is perhaps the Blind Self the most prominent when it comes to talking about the importance of peer observations. What is more, there are also things that are known to us but unknown to others (the Hidden Self) that might be reflected in our planning and inevitably come up during a lesson. All these aspects tend to become more visible when a teacher is being observed by a peer, someone who is on the same boat and tends to understand the daily pressure of teaching a range of levels and different age groups. Accordingly, the pre-lesson plan and chat with your peer are likely to be a more accurate representation of what really happens in the classroom. This is because some teachers mistakenly believe they need to go the extra mile when being formally observed by a manager, which tends to be a source of added stress and something even experienced teachers might not handle very well.         

However, there is another aspect that tends to be overlooked in peer observations – that it is a two-way process. Not only can the newer teacher get to observe their more experienced peer to change aspects of their teaching and focus on those that they themselves identified (Open/Hidden Self), but they can also offer purposeful feedback on aspects related to the Blind Self (which, in my humble opinion, is quite empowering too!). In the context of teacher training, which could also be applied here, Wajnryb (1993) points out that “we cannot assume that experienced teachers are necessarily consciously aware of many of the processes that co-occur in the classroom”. Indeed, a less experienced teacher with a fresh pair of eyes may be able to identify fossilised practices that might have been inadvertently replicated for years, or that are simply not effective to the target group being taught. Therefore, we can say peer observations are a professional development opportunity for both the observer and the observee.

Where and when

Given my background of teaching mostly at language schools, as long as it is not the end of term when everyone is probably more concerned about reports, parents’ meetings, and “covering the course book content” (!), I believe peer observation can be successfully conducted if set up properly. What is more, I see a lot of benefits in conducting it at the beginning of term, say the third week of a course once students have had the chance to get to know their teacher. If issues become too noticeable from the word go, you as an observee might want to nip them in the bud and ask for peer support (alongside management of course, depending on what it is). Alternatively, it is also positive to have another round of observations towards the end of term to reflect on the changes that took place after self- and peer-reflection.

In every case, the peers’ own desire to improve is the core principle to the entire process, with both parts committing to take an active stance in planning and gathering data, actively listening and staying open to feedback and different ideas. If it ends up becoming an imposition though, there will be no difference between peer and formal observations at all, which will in turn undermine the whole process. In addition, it is essential to remember that this is part of professional development, which means you probably will not get paid for the extra time spent in your colleague’s classroom. Hence the personal challenge of putting in a little more work in order to learn from it, which is always a valuable learning experience as the takeaway nearly always pays off.

How to go about it?

  • As the observee, tell your colleague what your perceived issue(s) are, bearing in mind they might not be the same as those later identified by your observer!
  • Always choose a focus (even if allegedly there are ten thousand things you dislike about teaching that particular class/level!), as it is often difficult to appraise several aspects of teaching at once – the same is true when we ask our students to give feedback to each other, isn’t it?
  • Have observation tasks designed to obtain the data you need, check Wajnryb (1993) for many ideas that can be readily used or adapted.
  • Find someone who teaches the same level as you at a different time, teach the same lesson and compare outcomes, frustrations, unexpected moments… making a connection with the developmental point(s) you had previously highlighted.
  • Feel free to disagree with the observer on a particular point, explaining your point of view.
  • Keeping a self-reflection journal might be a good idea too, if you happen to teach a similar class/level in the future.

  • As the observer, introduce yourself and explain to the students you are observing your colleague, not them!
  • Make sure there is a structured feedback meeting after the session. Go through your notes and observation tasks but allow the observee to speak as much as possible, and give them thinking time to structure their thoughts;
  • Acknowledge any good ideas your peer managed to bring into the lesson, or any positive attitudes they had, or changes noticed. Remember that Blind Self? 😊

This is my quick take on peer observations. If they are not part of your school culture yet, why not start them yourself? Let me know in the comments if you gave it a go and which noticeable changes you have felt in your teaching.

Reference:

Wajnryb, R. (1993). Classroom Observation Tasks. Cambridge Teacher Training and Development Series.

IH Teachers Online Conference 2020 – “Handing over to your learners” slides

Hi everyone! Thank you so much for watching my talk, I hope you enjoyed it and had a take away or two for your future classes. I love getting feedback so do let me know if you used any of these activities and how well received they were by your students. 🙂

Handing over to your learners – A2 “Accountable” Vocabulary, personality adjectives

This is another activity in which learners make use of a good online dictionary as well as Thesaurus to increase their lexical range. The preparation might be done as homework – for instance, students look up personality adjectives – and the warmer next class could be done as a testing activity, checking whether they remember the meaning and/or pronunciation of the words they came across.

Source: HEYDERMAN, E. & MAUCHLINE, F. (2013) Motivate! 2. London: Macmillan, p. 46.

This activity prepares students to discuss the topic of myths and legends. Surely A2 students will have seen words such as friendly and funny, and speakers of Romance languages can easily say what brave and cruel mean even if they have never seen those words. Then, each student looks up a word and gives the translation as required in the original task. In these cases, it would take a lot longer to CCQ what some of them are using L2 rather than resort to Google Translator or a bilingual dictionary!

After that, a classic activity which demands no preparation whatsoever is “Who in your family?”. Students ask each other in pairs “Who in your family is loyal? Why?”, “Who in your family is stubborn? Why?” and discuss reasons for their choices using simple language. If they don’t want to talk about themselves, you could ask them about superheroes or mythical creatures as this ties in with the topic of the lesson. At the end of the day, the same game or activity could be used with multiple levels as shown below. What changes is the amount of scaffolding provided and the language output expected.

Can’t give you Chris Hemsworth cos of copyright. Sorry about that. 😉

You can even raise awareness of social responsibility, getting them to think about who our real heroes are (doctors, nurses, teachers), as well as other people/groups they might be interested in. After they get back from breakout rooms, say a few adjectives again to aid their lexical retrieval and remember to check if they have used the adjective correctly (e.g. “By the way, do you think Cristiano Ronaldo is stubborn?”)

If you tried out this activity, let me know how it went!

TESOL Spain 2020 presentation slides – Making the reading process visible to learners

My debut as a speaker in a major face-to-face conference. A big thank you to IH World for allowing me to be in Salamanca and share ideas with an enthusiastic group of teachers. See you next time!

Helping learners with Gapped Text tasks

Since a number of my students have experienced difficulties taming the so-called “beast” of the Reading & Use of English paper in Cambridge Exams, I’ve decided to delve into the subject and come up with effective strategies to highlight what’s at stake when it comes to tackling this task. As far as I’m concerned, it all comes down to successfully predicting what could go in each gap while skimming the text and then marking any references you find in a very systematic way. Look at the following idea and if you decide to try it out with your students, let me know how it went! 

Procedure:

  1. Learners attempt the task for 12-15 minutes under exam conditions and are then given the correct answers.
  2. Next, the teacher draws a diagram on the board with three coloured categories indicating areas of cohesion: pronouns and demonstratives; linkers and discourse markers; lexical. In pairs, learners focus on one or two answers they got wrong using three different colour pens to identify connections between items, using different shapes (eg. circle, rectangle, brackets or underlining). They could also highlight distractors separately to explain why they do not fit later on.
  3. During feedback, the teacher asks learners the importance of doing this and when else such awareness of cohesion and coherence is useful. To provide further practice, learners try another task to check whether this process helped them perform better.

Example of teacher’s annotations for a Part 7 from C1 Advanced. Students’ notes needn’t be so detailed, although it’s essential that they understand the rationale behind this! Coursebook rights reserved to Norris, R. & French, A. (2014).


In the separate paragraphs, students can refer to the line in which they’ve found each reference for faster retrieval of information, and can also make notes on what’s happening in each gap (an example, development of the same topic, a new topic, a contrast between ideas). Coursebook rights reserved to Norris, R. & French, A. (2014).

An example of board feedback, with students noticing references and the line in which they were found.

  • Noticing and marking cohesive devices highlights text structure and the importance of connections to achieving overall text coherence, which is key in reading comprehension. Nuttall claims that “the reader who does not know what a pronoun refers to (…) will not be able to establish its signification” (1982:83).
  • Drawing arrows and circles helps learners notice anaphoric and cataphoric reference (Hasan 1984:183) and visually conveys the issue of their distance from each other in a text, which can hinder automatic recognition of reference.
  • Marking referents is essential because when moving our eyes from the text to the separate paragraphs on the other page, we tend to easily forget what a certain pronoun or determiner referred to, especially if it is repeated many times throughout the text. Clearly stating reference and line/extract allows for faster retrieval of information.
  • Colours appeal to visual learners and also enable them to retrieve an item more easily, thus saving them precious time when pressurised by exam conditions.
  • Finally, lexical cohesion – namely the most difficult for learners to identify – between seemingly random items can be facilitated by identifying semantic relations determined by linkers and discourse markers, made apparent by highlighting phrases as exemplified above.

References:

Hasan, R (1984). Cohesive and coherence harmony. In Flood, J. (ed.) Understanding Reading Comprehension. Delaware: International Reading Association, 181-219.

Norris, R. & French, A. (2014). Ready for Advanced Coursebook 3rd Edition. London: Macmillan Exams.

Nuttall, C (1982). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Macmillan Education.

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