Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#ELTchat Summary: Assessing Oral Skills in Large Language Classes

Assessment of functional language ability in the classroom could become problematic in large classes because of different variables that affect students’ opportunities to speak, and the time that teachers have to provide feedback and support to individual students.

Assessment issues include the size of the class. Size of classes considered large vary depends on the instructional context. Some language teachers have classes with more than 60 students or more, like those at Myanmar universities. In other cases, 20 students in a 50 minute-class can be considered too many to assure that every student can be assessed appropriately. Similarly, a class with 15 students can be deemed too large if it is taught in a very small room. Other factors interacting with class size and impacting teachers’ assessment of oral skills include the educational level (e.g., elementary vs. college-level language classes) and the age of the student. For example, older learners seem to work better in groups and stay on task more than younger learners or teenagers.

In order to address the oral assessment needs in their classrooms, teachers need to ponder the following elements in the assessment situation: the purpose of the assessment, the type of interaction, the participants in the interaction, and the time available to assess the students. It is important to contrast the formative assessment in which the teacher provides feedback to the students so that they improve in their performance and the more formal testing situation in which students are given a grade to indicate what they have achieved in terms of oral communication at the end of a language course. Also, the type of interaction will determine students’ amount of participation in the assessment activity. Interactions between the teacher and one student may be the ideal assessment situation to elicit a large amount of language and provide detailed feedback. However, this assessment procedure can be impractical with large classes since it will take different class sessions to assess all the students.

Language teachers striving to perform oral assessment in large classes are addressing some of the issues already mentioned by considering group interactions to reduce the assessment time and maximize students’ oral participation in the communicative situation. In group interactions, it has been suggested a task be provided and divided into mini-tasks. Each member of the group is assigned a mini-task task, a role (e.g., grammar monitor), or an assessment responsibility to control discipline and keep students on task. Once the task is completed, the teacher collects the result as a group or has a representative of the group report back to the class. Before students start working within their group, the teacher should provide a task rubric with the assessment criteria for success. Also, students can be involved in the assessment process by providing them with the opportunity to self-assess and peer-assess their oral performance.

Group assessment poses some issues of implementation or practicality. For example, how to form the groups so that they are productive? Should we mix students with different levels of proficiency? It seems that group formation is a process of trial and error until teachers find out the right group combination of students. Also, how can teachers keep track of students’ participation while they work in groups and identify weak student in order to later help them? Some strategies include devising a system in which you use groups in shifts that rotate. Then, the assessment follows the rotation, that is, the teacher goes from group to group with a checklist to record students’ participation in the group. Also, for visually-oriented teachers, a large tracking chart on the wall may work to get a picture of all the students’ progress in their oral skills. It seems that a real challenge is to provide feedback to individuals in groups. Other issues focus on students’ personality (e.g., being timid or introverted) and their willingness to participate in the group interaction using the L2. In monolingual classes, teachers often observe that students switch to their L1 to complete the task. To avoid having students rely on their L1 to complete the oral task, students should have clear instruction on how to complete the task. They also need to have the language ability to complete the task. Furthermore, groups should be encouraged not to speak the L1 and to be proud of it (e.g., Give them a banner that says “ This group never speaks Spanish in class”).

Although individual assessment in large classes is believed to be impractical, it can still be done. Teachers can have the class works on a task while they assesses a student or a pair of students. Students can work on fixing errors of other students’ written work, work on blogs, practice grammar points, while the teacher conducts the assessment. Other individual assessment strategies include using greeting sessions at the beginning of the class in which a student takes a turn at presenting a topic and the other students can ask questions about that topic. Each class session, a different student takes a turn to speak for the greeting session. Similarly, to assure individual oral participation during the class, some teachers use ice-cream sticks with their students’ names on them. When asking questions during the lesson, the teacher picks up one of the sticks from a cup and call on the name on it to get an answer for the question. The idea is to have no sticks left in the cup by the end of the lesson.

Assessment can also be performed outside of the classroom. Students can be assigned oral homework or activities based on the topics taught in class. They can record, individually or in pairs, their oral production using tools such as Audacity, Voki, Mailvu, or Voxopop. Recordings are analyzed for assessment purposes and feedback is provided. Individuals or pairs can record their homework again. One of the advantages of having students recording their oral production is that the teacher can track students’ progress from a first recording to a final recording in a course.

Language teachers have multiple challenges and issues to assess oral skills in large classes. However, they can experiment with different strategies and reflect upon their assessment experiences to find practical and useful methods to track the progress of their students’ oral abilities in their particular instructional context. It is important to remember that assessment should be a process that students enjoy and feel comfortable with.

The ideas in this summary were provided by the following ELTChat participants during the chat sesion on Wednesday Nov. 16, 2011:

Resources mentioned:

Jeremy Harmer en Chile - making larger classes smaller
Voices in the crowd: Strategies for teaching
Dogme & Formal Assessment – the odd couple?
Oral Language Development


  1. Planet Venus is called "brother" of the earth, because of their similarity in size, but the similarities end there. Its name comes from the Roman goddess of love, but on the surface conditions are far from idyllic.

    If an astronaut traveling to Venus, would have a very short visit to the laptops planet. Simultaneously fry temperatures of about 500 ° C and at the same time, be compressed to atmospheric pressure, 92 times that of the Earth. Not last long in these conditions.

    Venus transit 2004. NASA.
    Although Venus is the second planet from the Sun in temperature beats all others, including Mercury, the closest. It happens that Venus has a thick blanket of CO2 in the atmosphere, trapping heat and not let him escape.