Discussion: Testing and Assessment

This Friday Springboard will be bringing teachers together to chat and discuss testing and assessment. I’ve read an article by Dave Allan, which got me thinking about some questions that might be good discussion starters. What do you think? Post your comment below, and we’ll bring them to the discussion!


Discussion Questions: Testing and Assessment in Language Training

What’s the difference between testing and assessment?

Which is a better evaluation of a learner’s English capabilities: an objective test or a teacher’s assessment?  Why?

Do learners want to be tested? Why? Why not?

For assessment that involves various processes which go on over time, and measure more abstract traits such as discourse skills, fluency, flexibility and range, how can we give learners clear, formalised reporting on their language competence?

What are some best practices for teachers to integrate testing into a task based, communicative learning environment?

Dogme ELT

At our meeting last month, I mentioned Dogme ELT and people wanted to know more about it. As I understand and use it, it’s less a method than a philosophy: always put learning and learners first. The Dogme ELT “movement” started as a reaction to what Scott Thornbury felt were overprepared lessons, where teachers had so many materials and photocopies that there wasn’t any room left for the students. Here are the main principles (copied from the Wikipedia page):

  1. Interactivity: the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves.
  2. Engagement: students are most engaged by content they have created themselves
  3. Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is co-constructed
  4. Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations, where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
  5. Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
  6. Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.
  7. Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s beliefs and knowledge.
  8. Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks.
  9. Relevance: materials (e.g. texts, audios and videos) should have relevance for the learners
  10. Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.

Initially, Dogme started with a “vow of chastity”, where teachers promised not to use any pre-prepared materials at all but only what students brought in with them. This led to some negative reactions and I don’t think it’s necessary to reject materials to use it. Rather, I try to give learners and their questions and input at least as much value as the materials that we’re using–I really try never to interrupt someone’s story just for the sake of completing a few more exercises.

Dogme ELT has an active web community and there’s also a book explaining how to incorporate Dogme into your classroom.

Eight myths of learning/ teaching vocabulary

Do you have a go-to vocabulary activity that you use in class?

Do you ever have vocabulary that needs to be reviewed, and you’re not sure exactly what the best way to do it is?

Is vocabulary study best done as a homework task? How often do students study vocabulary on their own?

What exactly is the best way to learn vocabulary?

At our last get together, we debunked eight myths to vocabulary teaching. We shared experiences and best practices, and had a productive discussion about practical ways to do what sometimes seems almost impossible– get learners to expand their active vocabulary.

Click here for what the research says, and what you can do to teach vocabulary effectively.

One conclusion from our discussion was that what works depends on the learner. Now it’s your turn. Share your comments! What do you use that works?

Learning with texts

I added a few links in a comment on Alex’s post about Links of Interest but there is one that I think  deserves its own page. Learning with texts is a really incredible tool that I try to use myself for learning German and that I’ve gotten one or two students to try for English. Watch this video to see a demonstration:

It’s a brilliant concept, in my opinion. Once you get it set up properly, you’ll see which words you know and don’t know in a text before you start reading. You can get translations and make flashcards directly from your texts. And you’ll be able to instantly check other texts in which a word has appeared. It’s not a perfect tool, by any means (not the most elegant UI, a bit of work to get set up, no use of word tokens (“dog” and “dogs” are unique words in its database), phrasal verbs and phrases are tough to put in the system, you need an internet connection and electronic texts, it takes some effort to make it work well), but it really is something that I think will be the future of language learning.

Imagine if you had a database that linked all the times you had read (or heard! imagine once usable text-to-speech is really here) a word. Imagine the connections you’d be able to make with meanings and experiences. Now imagine that you’re a teacher and you could see the real “learner corpora” of all of your students–you could run your texts through their databases and see which words your students have actually never seen before rather than just playing a guessing game. Could it happen in our lifetimes?


Teaching Futures Using Comparative Grammar


Teaching English futures can be quite a hassle. As in levels A2-B1 students are expected to know three forms of future (will-future simple; going to; and present continuous in its future meaning) explicitly – implicitly including present simple in its future meaning – I have experienced that students encounter various problems connecting (verb-) form to use. On the level of Berufsmaturität (1st semester – lower B1) I therefore use the concept of comparative grammar to establish a solid form/use distinction.


The use of L1 is established, as T will explain the exercise in Swiss German. In groups SS are asked to establish real world examples of future use(s) in Swiss German. T coaches the distinct difference between (future) verb form and (future) use. (10’-15’)

The groups provide their examples. Correctness of use is established in a democratic process (“Would you actually say this in real life?”). T notes down one example each for will-future simple, going to future and, if provided, present simple in its future meaning. I personally do not order the contributions because SS then sometimes assume that will-future is “further away from present”. (10’)

With the three to four examples and enough space for an English translation in between T and SS try to establish the difference in meaning (or use) in these examples. T notes down keywords which should be as close as possible to the English: general prediction; plan; schedule. (5’)

Together with SS the sentences are now translated to English demonstrating the similarity in form and the complete unity in use between Swiss German and English (this does not work with standard German). T may now add: will future: instant decision/polite answer; going to future prediction in the near future and present continuous in its future use – though I think this rather covers an upper intermediate syllabus. (Time: open)

Exercises to be used ad libidum.

Please note that on the example below I have used the wrong color in the “use/meaning” column.

futures with L1

Subjunctive in English

Have any of your students ever stumped you with a question about grammar?

In a recent class, a student asked me why the verb could be either “was” or “were” and I couldn’t give a straightforward answer! Her questions caught me off guard. I knew both were correct, but couldn’t say why.

If I were to hypothesize, I’d say this has happened to all of us. Why? Because we learn grammar inductively in our native language. As we grow up it is necessary that we understand grammar from context without explicit rules. (Whether or not we demand that second language learners learn grammar like this is a topic for another discussion!)

But back to the subjunctive. For whatever reason, I never learned the rules. I even managed to avoid it in my teacher training.

But I can and do use the subjunctive! I was familiar with it despite not knowing the rules. In fact, I’ve used it three times already in this post. Can you find the subjunctives?

It was a joyous “aha” moment when I figured out, thanks to my ELT Springboard colleagues at our last get together, that “were” is used because it’s subjunctive! After some research and study, I now feel confident that I can answer my students’ questions, if they were to come up.   😉

I found this website to be helpful:


This quote is from that site. And doesn’t it ring true?

“If you’re confused by the subjunctive mood, don’t worry too much. As with all grammar and usage matters, the rules for subjunctive mood are based on centuries of convention. There’s no deeper reason; it just is what it is. But the subjunctive mood is useful, and it would be a shame if it were to go away.”

If you know something more about subjunctive in English or know of good resources, comment below!