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Strategy in action: assessment for learning

In the first of three articles, Andrea Osborne looks at formative use of summative assessment

"Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there."

So says the Assessment and Reform Group of 2002, quoted on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website, along with an excellent explanation and information about putting this into practice.

Here, we explore a key area in which languages departments are often involved, and look at some practical suggestions for painless implementation and development of "formative use of summative assessment".

Foreign language teachers often bemoan the lesson time consumed by summative assessments, but they can support future learning, contributing to raising standards.

This process begins before the test, as pupils review work and plan effective revision. Give key stage 4 pupils a writing exam question, on which they highlight which part(s) they can't yet do, thus diagnosing clearly what they need to revise.

Groups of Year 7 pupils might prepare a revision talk on one part of the module on School, eg "information we can give about subjects" or "using key verbs in talking about school". This is presented to the class, who comment, clarify misunderstandings and suggest improvements. Discuss how the talks will help them gain good marks in the test, eg now knowing key phrases to revise.

A further step involves pupils setting test questions and marking others'

answers. Pupils gain understanding of the assessment process while working to a list of marking criteria. In devising reading tests they examine classmates' ability to "identify main points and some details" and their speaking test demands both the content and the qualities needed for Grade C.

Familiarising pupils with the assessment criteria in this way makes effective use of those pupil-speak descriptors, as long as we concentrate on improving pupils' breadth and depth of linguistic understanding, rather than the finer requirements of the next grade. However, this requires teacher modelling, sharing of good examples and encouragement of a "skills mentality", alongside the language content.

To emphasise skill acquisition, take a question, which was widely answered unsuccessfully in a recent test and help pupils distil the reasons for this. Unrecognised vocabulary? Poor grasp of verb endings? Then failure becomes a learning opportunity.

In lessons, before tests or exams, support pupils by giving "dry-runs" with test-like material. Pupils then need time to reflect on these rehearsal activities, ascertaining what needs to be improved before next week.

Teachers can use the knowledge gained from both trial and test to predict what can best be practised in class before the next test.

This may lead to a series of starters on the sound-spelling link or a review of how two tenses can be introduced into an answer. Some pupils need smaller steps to improvement. For instance, a level 3 writer may first need to work on increasing the length, then on adapting sentences.

Preparing for a test on combining tenses, some pupils welcome a scaffold of ideas, others need challenging to widen the complexity and range by, for example, using other persons of the verb.

Do analyse the collective performance of pupils after tests to identify and target weaker aspects of your teaching.

For instance, mark reading and listening tasks question by question to pinpoint specific gaps in learning.

Good summative assessment is a positive learning process with pupils as beneficiaries, not victims. It motivates, encourages responsibility and leads to sharper target-setting, but this doesn't happen overnight.

The emphasis is, though, on understanding how to make progress, not passing the test.

* A management guide and generic training materials on assessment for learning have been produced for KS3 and sent to all schools: "Assessment for learning: Whole-school training materials (resource reference: DfES 0043 2004 G)".

* More information, plus free downloads and case studies are on the QCA website

Andrea Osborne is a secondary strategy consultant with Essex County Council. Andrea can be booked for school and LEA CPD activities in MFL or AFL

Tel: 0208 506 2089

* In the next languages Subject Focus, on January 27, Andrea will talk about objectives and outcomes

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