Assessments and language learning
Assessments hold a powerful grip on education. Many parents as well as school administrators will equate effective teaching and learning to approval rates in tests. Questions such as “O que vai cair na prova?” are equated to asking what students are expected to learn. Consequently, instructional material design often reflects the need to display clean-cut, ready-to-be-tested content. When it comes to language instruction, this means resorting to grammar rules and vocabulary lists. In this context, the use of PBLL and other active methodologies can be a challenge. Lessons focused on fluency and creativity are undercut by gap-fill exercises and non-contextualized grammar instruction. Moreover, in a decision to inspire a sense of effectiveness from the school community, assessments become merely summative grammar and vocabulary tests that have a negative washback effect on student motivation to become lifelong learners.
Michael Swan (2002) talks about how the temptation to use grammar as a testing shortcut opens the path to it being the only thing that is taught in class. He also warns that mastering grammar is a lot easier than acquiring language: there are other aspects of language, such as communicative competence, that are more challenging to assess, but equally important. According to Swan, it is an illusion to assume that grammar must be learned before someone starts communicating. We must take into consideration that our learners are not monolingual. How much grammar knowledge from their mother language can they also apply to English? How much else is important for them to learn? And how much instructional time is available? In a teacher-centered approach, those questions would not be meaningful to inform instruction and assessment design.
With PBLL being a student-centered approach, it is natural to assume instructional and assessment design should follow suit. What undermines its effectiveness as a language learning methodology is the misguided under-teaching of grammar. According to Swan, comprehensibility and acceptability should be the key aspects of grammar that guide the design of instruction and assessment. When teachers have this in mind, they can help students see the stages of project work as opportunities to use L2 authentically, not merely means to an end: the project itself.
How PBL relates to language teaching and learning
Piaget (1964) discusses how linguistic transmission of information relies on previously developed structures that enable an individual to assimilate such information. The idea could lead educators to assume that language learners must first learn grammatical structures, then experiment with real communication. However, this assumption relies on a simplistic view of grammar. It also views language learners as someone without any knowledge of how languages work. Traditionally, learners are seen as unable to learn without the central role of a teacher.
Stroller (2002) advocates for student involvement and autonomy in the language classroom. She discusses how CBI (Content-based instruction) and project work help teachers distance themselves from a dominant role in the classroom by creating an inquiry community where there is authentic language use, cooperative learning, collaboration, and problem-solving. The author also defends the fact that a content-based approach naturally makes use of the integration of the four skills and offers conditions for communicative language instruction. She cites four benefits of content-based instruction:
- Materials that are thematically organized make learning easier to remember and learn;
- Coherent and meaningful presentation of information leads to deeper processing and better quality of learning;
- Content-based classes commonly lead to higher student motivation and interest, which in turn lead to a higher ability to process challenging materials, recall information and elaborate;
- Learners can develop expertise in a single topic, unlike in a traditional language classroom, where the focus on grammar rules leads to a superficial exploration of disparate topics. This helps them reinvest this knowledge in tasks that are progressively more complex.
Project work could serve as an extension of this rationale, seeing that content focus is one of its features. It also promotes student-centeredness, and cooperation, and highlights the focus on process rather than product. This is because the final project has a real purpose, and a real audience, therefore motivating students to work on fluency and accuracy throughout the project development. To effectively promote these learning opportunities, teachers must design instructional sequences and activities that focus on fluency and also accuracy.
A pedagogy that focuses on fluency will have as a core component the use of task work. A communicative task will have a focus on meaning rather than on form. It will reflect natural language use and call on implicit rather than explicit knowledge, as well as what a learner can do without prior training, eliciting vernacular speech style, improvising, paraphrasing repair, and reorganization. It admits that the language produced will not always be predictable, as students will select from their repertoire the language to support the real communication that is required.
There is of course the danger that, with the lack of explicit instruction of linguistic structures, learners will be encouraged to see communicative competence despite language, rather than through language. However, just as in project work, the process, not the product, is the focus of Project Based Language Learning. In this perspective, task work must be used so that both teachers and students are aware of the role of authentic language use within project work.
Assessing linguistic performance in task work
If we consider projects as a series of communicative tasks that help students master content or topics, it is easier to see the potential for language learning. From there, we could use backward design to plan the project. What should students be able to do? In a language course, a good place to start would be CEFR descriptors. Then, by reflecting on key characteristics of the learners, we can reflect on what is worthy of their understanding, and what enduring understandings are desired for and by them. As Wiggins and McTighe (2005) define it, this stage must have clearly defined priorities, although we would still be considering overarching concepts, and not grammar points or vocabulary lists.
The next step would be determining how learning would be made visible. Let’s take the following B1 CEFR descriptor (CEFR 4.4.1): “Can give clear, detailed descriptions and presentations on a wide range of subjects related to his/her field of interest, expanding and supporting ideas with subsidiary points and relevant examples.” From this statement, acceptable evidence could be a report or a public presentation of the project. The statement also supports the creation of rubrics that would help students and teachers to further clarify the level of attainment of the language objectives.
Finally, with verifiable goals and an outline of the assessment, a teacher can plan learning experiences. These must include language that is mandatory for the topic of the project, which can be identified from facts, concepts, and principles related to it. A teacher who is knowledgeable in language systems will be able to identify grammar and vocabulary that is compatible with the CEFR level of the course and select it to be taught since it is relevant to the language goals. The instructional process must also rely on skills such as the processes, procedures, and strategies students need to be better prepared to perform the project’s communicative tasks.
Having rubrics and checklists as part of a formative assessment process where feedback is essential, not only puts a greater influence on students’ autonomy but trains them to become lifelong learners. They will develop a sense of self-efficacy through well-designed communicative tasks, which in turn leads to more motivation.
Assessments as self-efficacy standards
There may not be an end to the perception of assessments as the only indicators of quality in teaching and learning. However, learner training
that is a result of task work in the context of project-based language learning could lead to more motivated, lifelong learners who understand that there is more to learning a language than passing tests.
- ECML. CEFR-level estimation grid for teachers. European Centre for Modern Languages. Available in: https://www.ecml.at/ECML-Programme/Programme2008-2011/CEFR-levelestimationgridforteachers/tabid/4443/Default.aspx Accessed in June 2023.
- RICHARDS, J. Addressing the Grammar Gap in Task Work. In Richards, J and Renandya, W. Methodology in Language Teaching: An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- SWAN, M. Seven bad reasons for teaching grammar – and two good ones. n Richards, J and Renandya, W. Methodology in Language Teaching: An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- STOLLER, F. Project work: a means to promote language and content. n Richards, J and Renandya, W. Methodology in Language Teaching: An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- WIGGINS, G AND MCTIGHE, J. Understanding by design. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.