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Level assessment: 5 alternatives to placement tests

 

Before we start a new course, especially with an individual learner, we would like to know the answer to a critical question: what is their level? What are the ways of assessing our students’ language competency? I would like to share 5 alternatives to placement tests.

What’s my problem with placement tests?

I believe that typical placement tests, dominated by multiple choice questions, are terribly boring, demotivating, and repetitive for the student. I am also not convinced how informative and useful their scores are for me, the teacher, while planning the course.

What I propose instead, are 5 ways to initially assess the students’ language level which:

  • give the learner a reason to communicate their feelings and opinions ( speaking or writing)

 

  • create the opportunity for the learner to use (or try to avoid using!) a range of grammatical and lexical resources

 

  • express feelings and opinions about familiar and unfamiliar topics

 

What I want my language level test to accomplish:

  • show me what grammar and vocabulary the student uses or avoids using (very telling piece of info)

 

  • show me how confident the student is when expressing their opinions about abstract and more concrete topics

 

  • show me how familiar and confident my student is about using different functions of the language (asking questions, negotiating, agreeing, disagreeing, describing)

 

#1 Alternative: Video response (spoken/written)

 

What you need:

A short clip about anything you would normally show in your class. If you are not sure where to look for interesting classroom videos, take a look at my post here.

Aim:

Elicit an opinion on a more or less abstract topic.

Why it works:

This activity truly shows you the range of language your student has, whether you spring it on them or expect the completed task within a week.

Even though students are asked to talk/ write about something they might not be familiar with, the video offers some linguistic support. Weaker students will stick to the topic of the clip whereas stronger ones might use it as a springboard to discuss related topics.

Whatever language your students produce here will tell you heaps about their grammar and lexical range. If you use it as a speaking activity, you will be able to check their fluency and assess their pronunciation as well.

Procedure:

The student watched the video and needs to respond to its content. There are no wrong answers here as it is not a listening comprehension activity.

Ask open-ended questions such as:

What do you think about …? Why?

Would it this be possible in your country?

You might want to use the questions I ask in my Note down – pair-share video activity.

Tip: use a clip which is rich in visuals rather than dialogue. You want every student to be able to get the gist of what’s going on.

 

#2 Alternative: Photo response

What you need:

An image that is bound to make your student think and feel something.

I have written about using cartoons, photos, and illustrations with students so feel free to take a look at websites and authors I recommend.

This activity works similarly to the video response.

 

#3 Alternative: Role play

What you need:

A number of situations you could role play with your student. If you take a look at my Problem-solving activities, you might find some suitable content.

Aim:

See how flexibly your students use the language and how appropriately they react in English.

Why it works:

It puts students at the centre of a potential exchange in English and forces to summon everything they know to navigate the situation. It is great for checking how well our students use language functions.

Tip: be ready to improvise a lot in this activity!

 

#4 Alternative: Summarising

What you need:

A medium-length text (authentic or graded) on a neutral topic that does not require expert or specific knowledge.

Aim:

See how well your student is able to comprehend and express ideas. In this exercise what students DON’T say/write is almost as important as the language they choose to actually use.

Why it works:

This activity gives students a sense of comfort as they are not required to come up with original ideas or improvise. Still, they need to do a lot of language work: reading comprehension, preparing a mini summary, and choosing appropriate language all come into play at this stage. The length of your students’ summary, as well as the amount of direct quoting, will give you a clear view on how confidently they dealt with the task.

 

#5 Alternative: Let the student interview you

Why it works:

It reverses the traditional 1-1 classroom dynamic where the teacher grills the student and sometimes puts them on the spot.

Given it is your first (one of the first meetings) the student might have a bunch of questions regarding your qualifications, experience, interest and hobbies, the way the course is going to work, the way you are going to help them improve etc.

We often overlook the opportunity to maximise our students’ use of language use during this initial class by giving an expose on our classes. We can kill two birds with one stone: let the student discover all the information on their own through a questioning process.

This activity reveals a lot about how fluent and versed they are in conversational English, how well they use several language functions, how flexibly and naturally they react etc. Another perk: there is absolutely zero prep on your part required.

Tip: some students might find it difficult to come up with questions on the spot so it might be a good idea to inform them before the class that they will be given a chance to ask questions and should think of at last 5 ( optionally, we might also send a list of topics they can ask about).

 

My final advice would be to mix and match these activities during the same class and use these which we personally feel will give us the most feedback and information about the students’ language.

3 Comments

  1. As much as I like your ideas, I still would defend the purpose of placement tests- for instance, when you need to assess 90 students and divide them into groups. I totally agree that giving an individual student a placement test is rather a waste of time. A conversation would be much more informative in that case, as you could also find out about student’s past learning experiences, learning strategies etc. Btw, have you ever been to English Teachers Colloquium in Paris?

    • Thank you for the comment, Agnieszka.
      I absolutely agree that different solutions might be better suited for big groups. These ideas are a result of my experience working mostly in a 1-1 context.
      I’ve never heard about the Paris event. What’s your experience?

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