How to use formative assessment strategies the right way

When students see or hear the word ‘assessment’, they have a tendency to squirm and sigh. For teachers and students alike, it often feels as if classroom culture has become characterised by an endless flood of tests and exams. Most recently, John Swinney – the Education Secretary for Scotland – vowed to introduce reforms that will allow Scottish students to spend “less time on assessment and more time on learning.” The general impression seems to be that there is a dichotomy between the exhausting, regimental testing of ‘assessments’, and the fascinating endeavour that should be ‘learning’. But what this ignores is the middle ground: formative assessment strategies that are fun and educational. Is it not possible to evaluate our students’ learning, whilst still keeping them engaged, curious and imaginative?

Why formative assessment strategies are important for literacy

All good teachers know that, in order to maximise the benefits of your lessons, it’s important to be aware of your students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. The same principle applies to vocabulary instruction. If you’re not able to identify what sorts of language your class is struggling with, you won’t be equipped with the best ways to improve their knowledge.

The negative effects of this are obvious. Without a strong grasp of key words, how will your students understand the language used to explain important concepts or frame exam questions? You might spend multiple lessons highlighting examples of ‘prejudice’ in A Taste of Honey, only to discover that your class doesn’t fully comprehend the nuances of the term. Some students, of course, may be able to make the link between ‘prejudice’ and the examples discussed in class, but what if the same question is asked using unfamiliar language? Would your students still be ready to write about ‘discrimination’ or ‘bigotry’?

For this reason, it’s important to use frequent and engaging assessment methods that will enable you to specifically monitor your classroom’s literacy skills. This way, you will be better prepared to guide your students towards a successful, language-rich future.

How you can make these formative assessment strategies more fun

Well, first of all, not only can we make these assessment strategies more engaging, but we actually should be doing it. As the National Reading Panel found in the US, vocabulary instruction is most effective when it uses a variety of methods that allow learners to actively engage in tasks. Furthermore, as Nick Hart states in his article on Teachwire, “words only have meaning in context and if children are to successfully embed a new word into their vocabulary, they need to interact with that word multiple times, orally, reading and in writing.” In this sense, it’s no longer helpful or appropriate to simply quiz students on dictionary definitions. Instead, we should be providing interactive tasks that allow our classes to experience language in multiple different contexts, through a range of different strategies.

There are a number of fun ways to assess literacy skills, but one of the most dynamic exercises is ‘Demonstration Stations.’ When you have taught and discussed some key target words with your students, set up a series of ‘stations’ around the classroom. Assign a group of students to each station, providing them with a word they must produce a demonstration on. Giving your class time to be creative, the students must now use a variety of presentation methods to really explain the nuances of their word to you and the rest of the class.

How might this exercise look in action, then? Well, if you’re teaching the example of ‘prejudice’ mentioned above, you could ask your students to choose and act out scenes from A Taste of Honey in which prejudice is displayed. Meanwhile, other members of the group might focus on creating a semantic map of synonyms and related terms, explaining the relationships and differences between each word. After each demonstration, you can then discuss the group’s decisions and thought processes. If they show strong, nuanced understanding of their key term, reward them with a marking sticker, while working through any potential misunderstandings.

Obviously, this is only one example of what you might do to make your formative assessment strategies interactive, whilst still targeting those key literacy skills. For more, check out our 5 formative assessment strategies for literacy.

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