THE LANGUAGE MAGICIAN: Preliminary considerations for task development based on standards, skills and language levels
4. July 2016
Over the past 25 years the start of foreign language teaching has shifted to the primary education sector in many European countries. This shift has been accompanied by intense discussions about suitable methods and content for appropriate teaching of foreign languages in primary schools. Whereas initially a decision was made not to check the language resources used for teaching in order not to burden the foreign language learning process with performance monitoring, it very soon became clear that performance monitoring was necessary not only for diagnostic reasons but also to evaluate the teaching and not least for understanding the subject.
Reliable and valid academic level assessments are needed to record the learning achievements in a foreign language (as with other areas of learning in primary school) at a particular time. To measure possible progress two separate performance checks have to be carried out with a certain timespan between them. In the current LANGUAGE MAGICIAN project we have planned to do exactly that: The start and end of the 4th school year were chosen as the two times. In this way, the academic level of a virtually identical group of pupils can be measured and compared at two different times within a school year.
To arrive at a uniform assessment of the academic level in foreign language teaching in the various European countries involved, it is necessary to consult the common European reference framework (Europarat 2001). Almost all national education standards and framework plans for foreign language teaching in primary schools refer to entry level A1 Breakthrough in which the reference framework standards are defined for the four basic skills of listening comprehension, speaking, reading comprehension and writing in the form of can-do descriptors. On closer inspection, however, it quickly becomes clear that these are descriptors that are not differentiated enough for the primary school sector or do not exist at all for certain linguistic activities (cf. for example making public announcements). Finally it should be noted that Level A1 should be achieved after two years of foreign language teaching but in some cases takes four years. In order therefore to check the academic level at the start and end of the fourth school year, it is necessary to use more differentiated standards.
As a preparatory measure, therefore, educational standards for foreign language teaching in primary schools were gathered and compared with one another as part of the current LANGUAGE MAGICIAN project in the participating countries of Spain, Italy, England and Germany. We can basically state that standards are formulated in all the participating countries with reference to the four basic skills, which are sometimes known as communicative competences. In some cases, however, there are considerable discrepancies in the breadth of the activities described. A common factor for all the requirements for listening comprehension, for example, is that the learner should “be able to understand simple statements on familiar topics and react accordingly” (cf. BIG-Kreis 2005:9). In the Spanish standards, for example, there are also can-do descriptors which define certain activities or situations more precisely than the learner ought to be able to linguistically master: “Students can understand essential information in product advertisements of interest for children (games, computers, CD, etc.).” (National ESL-Standards at Primary Level developed by the Ministry of Education at the Canary Islands). This bandwidth can be found in the other three skills. Despite the differentiation in the standards it seems sensible and necessary to place the focus on the individual skills and their combinations in assessing the academic level in the languages involved, namely English in Spain, Italy and Germany, and Spanish, Italian, French and German in England, so that at least an approximation of authentic communicative language situations can be achieved.
In addition to the stipulation that performance checks should relate to the skills, a decision must be made as to which linguistic level (sub-skills) should play a role here. Taking the various areas of linguistics as a basis, this may involve the levels of pronunciation and intonation, vocabulary, grammar at word or sentence level (morphology and syntax), linguistic functions, verbal resources and textual linguistics. The various combinations of skills and language levels result in possible task formats for the planned academic level assessment. In addition, the technical framework conditions of the electronic media used in performing the academic level assessment must be taken into consideration. Assessment of the academic level must be capable of being carried out in electronic form on any PCs, laptops, iPads or tablets.
Another important aspect was the decision that learners should not see this as a test but that the assessment of their language knowledge should take the form of a computer game in which participants use the foreign language as a means of progressing in the game. Considerable thought was given to developing a storyline, which at this point should not be looked at in detail, however. One restriction which had to be made because of the technical circumstances was to do without checking for correct pronunciation as this would have required complicated speech recognition software. Given the current state of the art it would be almost impossible to rule out misinterpreting the utterances of young schoolchildren. The remaining skills for the task therefore are listening comprehension, reading comprehension and – with certain provisos – writing.
It is evident that the task formats used in gaming form for assessing linguistic competence should exhibit a certain progression from simple to difficult. This ensures that all learners are capable of mastering the first tasks in the computer game. The longer the game is played the more demanding the tasks become so that linguistic ability can be distinguished more precisely. The appropriate sequence of skills starts with listening comprehension and moves on to reading comprehension or a combination of these two. Writing constitutes the most demanding skill for foreign language learners in primary schools.
At the sub-skill level a possible progression would be from the word level to phrases and then to complete sentences. It is also possible to test structural and communicative aspects of language with tasks on sentence structure and the pairing of appropriate statements. Consideration of these requirements in developing the tasks ensures an extensive bandwidth of task types, from simple to more complex ones which can be used to assess the linguistic competence of learners in a differentiated form. It is important not to lose sight of the connection to the standards described above, however, and this connection should be checked once again after all the tasks have been produced.
4th July 2016
Author: Prof. Dr. Norbert Schlüter (Leipzig University)
BIG-Kreis (Hrsg.) (2005) Standards, Unterrichtsqualität, Lehrerbildung. (2. Auflage). München: Domino Verlag. (Standards, Teaching Quality and Teacher Training. 2nd Edition)
Europarat (2001) Gemeinsamer europäischer Referenzrahmen für Sprachen: lernen, lehren, beurteilen. Berlin: Langenscheidt. (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment)