Today I gave my grades 3/4/5/6 beginner English Language Learners an assessment and, as I often do when I give an assessment, I was thinking about my favourite teacher.
My favourite teacher was my university Arabic professor. Her name was Ghada. She was a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem. It was really difficult learning a new language – never mind Arabic – at university level but Ghada made me want to please her. She was an incredibly kind and joyous person and she did her best to make the lessons clear and relevant and happy. This was a big task for a class that was probably about 40-50 people strong.
There were two things about her that made a huge impression on me. Firstly, she was always kind and encouraging, and I hadn’t had a lot of that from teachers before. Secondly, and this is very important, she was super supportive and (how do I say this…) “forgiving” with assessments. For example, in any test situation she would give students multiple tries to get things right. When I finished my test, she would take it from me, scan it quickly, then hand it back and say “Just check it again. I know you know this.” Then when I brought the test back to her she would point to a specific section and say, “No, look here. Be careful!” Once I brought it back a third time then she would look at it again and say, “Are you sure you’ve done everything you can?” Once I conceded that I had indeed reached my limit of Arabic knowledge she would accept the test.
Keep in mind, that the tests were in a new script and a new syntax that I was struggling to decode, never mind comprehend correctly, so catching mistakes was a challenge. This was while I was also trying to remember the right vocab, read the question, remember the grammar and form the letters correctly. There were multiple levels of skill being tapped that had not been obstacles for me for many years. I believe Ghada understood this and wanted to help her students feel successful by alleviating some stressors in order to allow us to reveal what skills and knowledge we had obtained.
I think about this kindness all the time when working with my beginner English Language Learners. Some students are working in a new script, some have learning challenges, some have basic academic literacy skills in a couple languages but have no grade level academic literacy skills in any language. And for most students, being a regular elementary school kid learning math, science, social studies, art, PE, music, drama and reading and writing in a new language is just plain hard.
At my school, a lot of what we do for assessments is narrative writing, which is a big chunk of language to produce in one go. So when I give assessments, I cut them a break. I help them with spelling. When they’re stuck with a story I talk them through the problem so they can move forward. I support them with clear checklists and leave all the anchor charts around the room to use as much as they like. I leave vocab lists on the wall for them to use. If they’re completely drawing a blank I sit and ask them questions to help them develop a story plan. I try to be strict with irregular past tense verb knowledge, but even then I will give them hints to help them along. For reference, my assessment checklist for this past unit is on the left.
I’m not sure how common such a practice is, or if people will be scandalised by such a practice. I will add, that in the long run it’s really not that much help. If a student writes 10 lines of a story and I help them 3 times there’s still a ton of language there for me to assess for understanding. I can’t help every student with every line of their work. But the small amount of help I do give reduces stress, allows them to feel successful and I hope makes them feel I am on their side, which is exactly how Ghada made me feel.
Unit assessments and language level placement assessments are different things though, and with the placement assessments I have to be more strict. Even so, we don’t make our language level placement recommendations by just the placement assessments; we try to look holistically at what the student can do from multiple pieces of work. Ultimately, my goal is not to push a student into a higher level if that’s not what’s best for them; but if I can support them and help them feel more confident, then they are more likely to take a risk to show what they know. That’s my theory anyway.
I did quite well in Ghada’s class, receiving an A- at the end of the year. Unfortunately, Ghada got in trouble with the department because the class average was too high, B+, which was way higher than most courses at the university and far too high for Arabic (historically). Rather than praise her teaching skills, they told her she was making the course too easy and damaging the reputation of the program. For my part, I adored her and I busted my ass to please her and do as well as I could because I felt she believed in me. She thought I was an excellent, hard working student and I never wanted to dissuade her from believing this.
I want my students to know I believe in them. I give them little bits of help to let them know that I’m interested in drawing out what they can do – that I am not looking for ways to catch them out on unfortunate mistakes.