Back Tuesday 23 Feb 2016 2:36 pm

EAL and the New Assessment World

EMC has invited some well-known figures in the world of English and Media teaching to give their views on a subject about which they feel strongly by writing us a guest blog. These blogs will not necessarily represent the views of the English and Media Centre, but promise to be thought-provoking and spark debate. In this blog, Graham Smith discusses the tricky issue of assessing EAL learners in English.
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If only Michael Gove had contented himself with abolishing levels, he might be remembered as the Secretary of State for Education who liberated teachers from the tyranny of a crude assessment system designed by bureaucrats and students from a world where “My target for the end of this year is level 6c” was deemed a meaningful utterance that somehow enhanced motivation for learning.  Instead, he gave us 19th century non-fiction at GCSE and abolished the assessment of speaking and listening.

Of course, pronouncements of radical change by politicians are not the same as real change. In many of the secondary schools I know levels have just carried on. They may have disappeared in most primary schools, but the widespread belief that age related expectations in Year 6 means level 4b has spawned an industry of age related expectation sub-levels (try this target tracker).

For EAL teachers assessment has always been a doubly thorny issue. National assessment systems are, understandably, designed for students whose first language is English. Inevitably students with EAL will struggle to show the full extent of their abilities in a language over which they lack full control.  This can be true whether they are relatively new arrivals or have had their whole schooling in English (see Victoria Murphy’s recent research and Lynne Cameron’s work for Ofsted on advanced EAL learners at Key Stage 4 and post-16). Whilst we have to show what EAL students can achieve in English, we also have to be able to assess how their English is developing.

Before the National Curriculum most EAL teachers used some version of a crude Beginner/Emerging/Developing/Consolidating scale. These scales had varying degrees of complexity but generally we didn’t agonise too much over the fact that speaking, listening, reading and writing skills all develop at different speeds. The purpose of the scales was to give all teachers a rough guide to a student’s level of development in English and therefore an indication of what classrooms strategies might be most helpful. In 2000 QCA tried to square the circle and give us just one scale and encourage teachers to use a common language about EAL students. Commended by Ofsted, A Language in Common gave us a modified route to level 2 English with lots of helpful advice. It didn’t, however, address the issues for assessing and supporting more advanced learners.

The abolition of levels has given EAL teachers an opportunity to rethink and refresh their approach to assessment. First out of the blocks was the NASSEA framework,  a useful booklet for recording EAL progress with sound advice on helpful strategies. This framework is a phase specific approach that tries to match its nine steps to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). It is a useful approach, but one that gets more complex the further you take it.  CEFR, like the EFL world’s IELTS, is designed to measure language acquisition, not performance by EAL learners in particular subject disciplines. Manny Vasquez has gamely tried to map CEFR, IELTS and a four stage EAL model against the old and new English GCSE grades (see slide 20 of this fascinating presentation) and demonstrated the concertina effect: everything from the new grade 4 upwards is part of the consolidating phase of the scale.

This is the area in which schools are often least interested (they focus understandably on pupils relatively new to English), but also the area in which schools can make the most difference for students and to whole school outcomes. Which is why we will focus on the needs of this kind of student on our course: Helping EAL Learners to Get the Most Out of the English Curriculum at KS3&4.

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