Whether teaching in a live classroom in front of a group of students or one-on-one in an online setting, it is important for an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher to quickly and accurately determine a student’s language abilities and learning needs. This should be done both in the beginning and continues throughout the learning process.
Of course, this can be accomplished by talking to the student and listening to them speak in order to evaluate their vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar usage at the moment. However, this method is rather subjective and it doesn’t give the teacher or the student any quantifiable data to analyze and refer back to for future planning.
Instead, it is better to use a structured test that produces measurable results to gauge the student’s language level, their learning needs and track their progress. There are three commonly used tests for these purposes; the initial assessment, the formative assessment, and the summative assessment.
The initial assessment is used in the beginning of a course to gauge the student’s baseline abilities and needs. It is useful to perform this initial diagnostic evaluation so that the student and the teacher can get on the same page as to what the student’s language abilities are and what areas of instruction they should concentrate on.
An initial diagnostic evaluation is better than simply asking the student what they think their needs are because, frequently, the student doesn’t have a clear picture of their own abilities. For example, a student may think that they need to work intensively on verb tenses because of their educational background. Maybe they came from a school where the teachers focused predominately on grammar structures. However, after taking a comprehensive diagnostic test, the results may show that the student’s grammar is actually good but that their vocabulary is very basic. Or, the test may show that they know verb tenses well but articles or pronouns are actually the topics they need to improve upon.
Showing the results of a structured test to the student demonstrates to them that the teacher’s evaluation of the student’s abilities and needs are not purely subjective and the student may see that their ideas about their needs were different from the reality. The formalized test gives the student and teacher evidence of these needs and this helps them to work together to establish more relevant and realistic learning objectives.
The formative assessment is used at regular intervals throughout the course to track the student’s progress towards reaching their goals. The main purpose of the formative assessment is to demonstrate what topics the student has mastered and which ones they haven’t. Again, continuous observational or anecdotal evaluation by the teacher is essential, but it doesn’t provide any quantifiable evidence of what the student has learned and what the student may be struggling to learn.
By studying the data gained from a formative assessment, the teacher and the student can stop focusing on the topics the student has mastered and devote their time and energy to topics that the student is still working on. After the results of the evaluation have been analyzed, existing learning objectives can be adjusted, new ones can be added and the teacher and student can move on to the next phase of the course with renewed focus. This makes class time far more efficient.
Another benefit of regular formative assessments is that it gives the student a short-term goal to focus on. The student should know in advance that the test is scheduled and what material the test will cover. That way, the student has a smaller and more manageable chunk of information to concentrate on in a shorter period of time. And, once the student has taken the assessment, its results can be compared to the previous ones and the student can see clearly how much progress they have made. This can give them a sense of accomplishment and will encourage them to continue to work towards their broader, long-term goals.
The summative assessment is used at the end of the course to evaluate what topics the student has or hasn’t mastered or goals they have or haven’t achieved. This evaluation is useful to demonstrate what goals the student has ultimately achieved and to what degree they achieved them. Again, this can give the student a sense of accomplishment and should encourage them to set new goals to pursue for the future. It will also help them to set new goals for their next phase of learning.
One benefit of using all three of these evaluation methods goes to the teacher. The teacher can use the information to gauge the effectiveness of their lesson planning and instruction methods. Formalized evaluations are therefore a vital tool for the student and the teacher to use to measure their success in the classroom.