My Journey to Better Assessments in My Comprehensive Classroom

Marianela Serrano, OFLA Professional Development Chair
Spanish Teacher, Hathaway Brown School

Marianela Serrano

This school year, I made one of my goals to redefine my assessments.  In the unprecedented circumstances of the last few years, research about language acquisition and teaching has revealed that less is more when assessing. A small one to two-page assessment will give me just as much information about a student’s ability as five to six-page assessments (from the Comprehensive Classroom Assessment for Acquisition Boot Camp). I also realized that my current assessments tell the students very little about their abilities. They do not help them understand where they are in terms of proficiency in the classroom or how they can grow in their language abilities. Although I am expected to assess grammar in my educational setting, I wanted to change my assessments to reflect my philosophy of teaching which is Comprehensible Input (CI). I want to give students feedback about their interpretive and presentational skills. The question was then, how do I assess these skills (interpretive and presentational) in real-time and in small ways that did not overwhelm the students or me?

My first goal was to create assessments that give students a better understanding of their interpretive and presentational skills in the classroom and provide them with the next steps to improve. I intend to help students figure out where to focus their efforts to improve their skills after the assessment feedback. I wanted to find a way to give them a simple, achievable idea that they could put into practice to be successful. Although my journey started about two years ago, my implementation and trial and error started halfway through last school year (20-21).  My journey is not complete, but I am slowly molding my assessments to reach my goals. I will discuss the ideas that have worked for me and the steps I took to implement them.

During the past school year, I read several books to understand language acquisition. The books were While we are on the topic by Dr. Bill VanPatten and Key questions in Second Language Acquisition by Bill VanPatten, Megan Smith, and Alessandro G. Benati. The latter was used in our OFLA book club discussions.  My learning was expanded as I listened to other teachers’ perspectives during the discussions.  I needed to make sure that my assessments would work with the brain processes that allow us to acquire a second language.  My main takeaway from these books was that the explicit practicing and testing of grammar skills only tells the students how well they memorized something.  Still, it doesn’t give them feedback on their skill level or their proficiency in the classroom. They may see an A and think they are doing great, and they certainly did when responding to fill-in-blank questions.  However, when the student encounters these words in a text and is asked to talk about them, she often draws a blank because there is no genuine brain connection to the meaning of the word. Hence this was undoubtedly an A in memorization but not helpful to inform the student about their language acquisition in the classroom. 

I also knew from prior training (TPRS and OFLA’s Teaching Towards Language Acquisition workshops) that if my class was focused on the practice of comprehensible input, I could, by the student’s responses, assess how they were progressing and what they needed.  Hence, if a student is introduced to a sentence containing a target structure repeatedly used in a story, we can ask and answer questions using this structure in context. Then, I should see and hear if the student is acquiring this structure right in class.  If the student cannot utilize the structure with ease after a certain amount of repetition, we need more repetition in context before moving forward. I then started looking for a way to collect data in real-time as the class was happening. After searching for ideas, I reached Sra. Chase’s blog and found her assessment ideas.  I love her low-stress speaking assessments, and I started implementing these and her Magic cards for oral participation.  These have helped me obtain data that I can use to identify whether a student is acquiring the concepts that we are practicing and if they need more exposure.  It also helps me to differentiate the needs of individual students.  Sra Chase’s activities can be done in real-time as the students speak in class. I only make marks or numbers that tell me how the students are doing, and then I review my markings and prepare for the classes ahead. Always keeping in mind that if a student still needs to review and repeat a structure, I continue to practice it in my next story or my next activity to provide this repetition in context and listen for acquisition.

The data I obtained also helped me evaluate oral participation, one of my school’s grade requirements.  I could see the student who was participating and those who needed more opportunities to participate.  Hence, I graded oral participation and listening comprehension daily with this information.

It is important to explain here that I teach ten minutes of grammar daily, and I still do a worksheet here and there because my students will be asked to complete these in their school assessments.  I do not review these repeatedly if the student does not master them. I expose them to these grammar concepts and move on to the stories. I practice some of these critical grammar structures in our readings and stories, and this is where if they need more repetition to feel comfortable with the structure, I continue to repeat it.  For instance, in my Spanish 2 classes, the students must learn the grammar concept the imperfect tense.  I will spend the 10 minutes for a few days explaining when and how to use it, which often confuses the students more than helps them.  However, the majority of our time, we will be using stories, watching videos, and reading narratives that would target structures like “iba a” (I used to go to), había (there used to be), and tenía (he/she used to have).  Once these concepts are mastered, we would move on to three more and so on.

I have been very fortunate that my school has purchased Nuestra Historia 2 from Voces Digital for my Spanish 2 classes.  This resource has excellent reading materials and reading comprehension questions that I can manipulate to make them work for me and the structures I want to stress.  After we discussed three (grammatical) structures, practiced doing/reading stories, and answered questions, students were given a short story to read.  As a follow-up activity, students were asked to note the main idea, three main sentences to highlight the events in the story, and their reaction to the story.  This format was inspired by Sra. Chase and the Comprehensible classroom training: Assessment boot camp.  I do these about one to two times per month, and it gives me quick feedback on how the students can comprehend what they read. My form’s first and second questions can be completed in English, and the third question is a written paragraph in Spanish ( the target language I teach).  The latter also lets me see if they can respond in the language and use the target structures that we are practicing.  

I still had to find the best way to communicate these results to the students. That is why I enrolled in the online Comprehensive Classroom Assessment for Acquisition Boot Camp.  I knew I needed other teachers’ perspectives and ideas of giving the student better feedback. Just writing it in the paper after grading it was not doing it.  The students would not take a second look.  I am still finishing the Acquisition Boot Camp training. Still, I have learned to keep the assessments simple, use a rubric that already has in it the next step for the student to improve, and most importantly, the sessions with the teachers that are held via zoom have helped me see where my grading perspective compares to theirs.  I also have started having mini-conferences with my students after each writing comprehension assignment and using the Quick Write Paper 2016 rubric from Immediatemmersion.com to talk to them about the next steps for their writing.  I do not use the writing paper in the Quick Write Paper mentioned above, but I use their rubric to let students know where they stand and what to do next.  Most of my reading comprehension write-ups are for completion, but one may be graded per month.  

When I talk to the students about their writing, I also talk about their listening comprehension and what to do to hone into the words they know and rely on the context to make out what a person is saying.  For listening comprehension, the best way to improve is to continue listening, so we do a lot of this at school, all the time, every day.

I continue to learn about the Rubrics that Martina Bex and Elicia Cárdenas present in their Acquisition Boot Camp training and look at their rubrics.  I am still looking for real-time assessments I can do to give me an idea of where to stir the class and let the students know where they are. 

I want to thank my wonderful students first for letting me try my ideas and giving me feedback. I also want to thank Sra. Chase and all the staff at the Comprehensive Classroom  Assessment for Acquisition Boot Camp for allowing me to mention some of their ideas in this article.

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