Writing about Talking - Oral. Assessment and Learning
Colin Shaw Second in English Dept., Culverhay School, Bath
The assessment of oral work is problematical. The difficulties of assessing and a t the same time teaching during class discussion, and the problem of maintaining the naturalness of a conversation which is being assessed, are two of the constraints on the teacher. GCSE has exacerbated the difficulties by placing emphasis on continuous and regular assessment, rather than the end of course performance which was a feature of some CSE examinations. As we approach assessment for the first GCSE intake, it is worth looking critically a t some of the methods of facilitating this oral assessment and at the part that assessment can play in learning.
The development of formative profiling systems has begun to legiti- mise the negotiation of assessment between teacher and pupil; it is possible that developments of this kind may be influential in the English classroom. This is not a new idea. The N.E.A. English syllabus B for the 1988 G.C.S.E. English examination states:
Candidates own record keeping may be seen as a useful teaching method and also as an important supplement to the teachers records.
I wanted to determine precisely the kinds of contribution children could make to the assessment of their own oral work, and the learning that would arise from an attempt to focus their attention on oral assessment in English. Working with a class of 25 fourth year pupils over a period of four weeks, I introduced a variety of oral tasks, including role play and problem solving activities. Before and after each session I offered a time for reflection in the form of journal writing; pupils were asked to anticipate the likely nature of their contribution, bearing in mind the task set, and afterwards to comment on what had occured. The first session was spent defining the nature of oral work and of teacher expectation in oral lessons. I recognised the dangers of asking pupils to articulate their own conception of the oral curriculum; it would inevitably be defined by the more formal and public occasions, and I was not surprised to find comments like:
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the English teacher looks for a clear loud voice. . . slang words should not be used
oral work i;s putting your hand up and waiting until i t is your time to t a l k . . . I think that my English teacher values . . . the ability to speak using the correct tense with all the words pronounced correctly.
I was keen to dispel preconceptions such as these, stemming from a purely formal, almost rhetorical conception of oral work. Some were already aware of other possibilities much more likely to lead to confident work and to learning, recognising issues such a s our ability to use the English language in different ways to say different t h ings . . ., but a sense of wider aspects of oral work was largely undeveloped.
Another aspect of this limited perception of oral work was the emphasis which the children placed on content rather than style. One response was that the teacher looked for students who could make a good set of valuable points, another felt that in oral work teachers could also evaluate how quick certain people are to answer the questions and to find out who has the most knowledge about it. I t would be necessary to draw the attention of pupils away from content and public performance to other aspects of oral assessment if they were to comment appropriately on their own achievement, and yet I did not want to predetermine their comments by providing a framework of my judgements through which they would be tempted to mould their view of themselves. This would not lead to the critical self appraisal that I valued; nor would i t provide appropriate information for myself as assessor. My improvised solution was to provide a checklist of oral activities, in the belief that as they recognised these as part of their work they would a t the same time recognise the nature of their achievement in each area. The list pointed out a variety of possible activities that might occur in an oral lesson, but avoided judgemental aspects. Thus activities such as joking or chattering were given equal status with others such as thinking out loud or changing opinions during discussion. The list allowed for the possibility of making comments on listening and talking skills as well as aspects of non-verbal communication such as gesture.
Session two was a sequencing exercise; again pupils were given the opportunity to comment on their expectations and, afterwards, their achievements. Inevitably many found it very difficult to make what they felt were useful comments; the responses to the original question, What is oral work? had indicated tha t this was likely to he the case. The oral checklist, which I introduced half way through the evaluation session, was greeted with some relief, and comments like it surprised me to find out tha t I could write masses more t,han I had already done. The responses of the children and changes in the range of the comments at this point indicated a developing awareness of the nature of oral assessment which would form a more positive basis for further learning. I t was from this session onwards tha t some of the most useful comments on their own performance, and that of others, began to appear in the oral logs. These indicated two areas where, it seemed to me, useful contributions had been made and where learning had taken place.
The first was the comments the pupils made about each other.
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Perceptive comments about their working partners arose quite spon- taneously in several of the logs, and in the coursework essays in which pupils were later asked to report on this series of oral lessons. I had not suggested that this should be a part of the exercise, not wishing to solicit the kinds of disparaging comment that may have been likely. 1 felt that it would be unfair to expect students to make unbiased assessments of their peers. Nevertheless, in attempting to explain their own reactions, and to evaluate their own contribution, many did need to refer to the successes and failures of their partners; this was the context in which they were able to see themselves and their own achievement; for example, My voice was quite soft and reassuring because he was angry. In the course of this kind of context-setting it became clear tha t many pupils were able to point out competences of their partners that were inaccessible to me as a teacher dealing with a dozen different pairs working a t once. Many of these comments were favourable, and tolerant:
My partner did not have the opportunity to talk for long, but when he did, i t was in a clear and polite manner. He made good use of actions to draw attention to himself. (teacher/parent role play)
Lee listened well to what I had to say.
he spoke formally, using lots of different, complicated words.
These comments indicated a developing ability to respond to aspects of spoken language in a critical and thoughtful way. Recognition of nuances of tone and of the significance of gesture and audience were apparent here, and pupils were beginning to articulate some of the issues that had been inaccessible during the first session, when oral work was defined.
Throughout the logs there were perceptive comments. These were often self critical, and included issues pertinent to clarity and social register, confidence, tone, sense of audience, fluency and appropriateness of language to purpose. More subtle and difficult areas from the point of view of assessment were also raised, including comments about social interaction, such a s one arising out of a paired sequencing exercise; We did have a slight disagreement on the last line, but I am pleased to say this was resolved amicably.
I t would be possible to quote from a wide range of evidence to indicate the value of these comments to myself as teacher, but I prefer to end this section by quoting part of the comments of one particular pupil about a role play exercise.
When my partner came in he looked a little angry, but was calm and civilised. I stood up, shook his hand and very politely asked him to si t down. He explained the problem and demanded to know what I was going to do about it. In a very civilised and posh voice, I immediately tried to talk my way out of it . . . I tried to give the impression that I knew what I was talking abou t . . . I eventually talked my way out of it by promising to look into the matter and do all that was possible During the role play I found it difficult to get into the role of a councillor because of the voice. I found i t almost impossible to talk in a councillors voice.
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There is a range of comment here that encompasses sure and safe perceptions of the oral achievements of both protagonists as well as more exploratory, and less confident points which would need to be treated in a different manner. As assessors we may wish to recognise amongst other attributes a sensitivity to other speakers, to their moods and attitudes, the use of formal greeting, evidence of comprehension and response, recognition of tone, both explicit (he looked a little angry) and implicit (demanded to know). We would also recognise the self doubt the student shows with respect to the formal voice. Again this is explicit in the final comment, but implicit earlier in the passage when we recognise the lack of sureness in the choice of the word posh. It implies unease, communicating a sense of alienation from someone elses language. A speaker fluent in the formal register would be likely to be more consciously aware of nuances in the way speech is described. Furthermore, in the social context described here, is it appropriate to adopt a tone of voice which might be construed as patronising to a client?
What we are witnessing here is a student both recognising and revealing weaknesses in his own oral ability, and pinpointing an area in which subsequent learning will have to take place. It is a particularly striking and useful instance of the dovetailing of the private and public aspects of assessment, and the potential value of this kind of log in the classroom as a source of dialogue and feedback between pupil and teacher is significant. However, we will not always be fortunate enough to have pupils so articulate or honest. If that is the case what is the value for assessment of adopting the use of journals described here? What methods can we use to validate journal comments, and what part can they play in our overall scheme?
This article opened with the claim that the problem for the teacher is one of time. The range and variety of talk that takes place in the English classroom is bewildering. We can only sample this in the same way that we may look closely a t a selection of a candidates written coursework and from thalt extrapolate a grade for the whole of it. The problem with oral assessment is more difficult than with the assessment of written work because we can skim read passages to determine the consistency of standards, and we can expect a specific written response to a specific task. An essay set will be completed, or the candidate will be marked absent. We cannot treat oral contributions in the same way. Attributes such as listening or responding appropriately are much less clearly defined and harder to recognise in the confusion of an active situation like a group discussion. Criteria to be used in assessing speech are more varied; we cannot easily cover them all. Video and audio recording can play a part, but both present problems, as do checklists and other impromptu methods of reviewing the event. We cannot be sure we are reviewing a t an equally favourable moment for each candidate; we may miss the best work, even ignore aspects that are less vocal or prominent. All of these methods will play a part in our work, but in order to achieve an amount of justice in this area, we will have to listen to the candidate, who is an appropriate judge of aspects of what actually happened. There may be no other way of judging some events. That is not to say that we should listen indiscriminately and accept without reservation the comments made; I have indicated a critical stance, but it is impossible
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for us to talk with confidence about oral achievement unless we take into account the viewpoints of the participants. A regular written dialogue with each pupil through an oral log gives the opportunity for review, for formative assessment, and for the development of a range of comments on oral performance that can be a useful submission to a n examination board. Over a two year course it would be possible to guide a student through a series of entries covering the requirements of a syllabus, so that this could become a centrally important document validated by teachers comments and, if necessary, tape recordings. As a means of assessing oral achievement it would be more flexible than checklists or oral profiles, since it could easily meet the demands of each particular activity, responding a t the same time to the needs of the pupil to develop his/her own understanding of the nature of the oral curriculum. This would maximise opportunities for learning.