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Teachers' understanding of AfL in teaching English to young learners

How do teachers of young learners understand Assessment forLearning?

Maria Britton

on 4 June 2015

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Transcript of Teachers' understanding of AfL in teaching English to young learners

Maria Britton
Institute of Education, Warsaw University
Nord Anglia Education, Warsaw, Poland
Assessment for Learning
Defining AfL in TEYL contexts
- a selected literature review
Assessment for Learning
Teachers understanding of
in teaching English to Young Learners
aged 7-11
Practical examples of AfL
Although Assessment for Learning (AfL) has been adopted in many educational contexts (Hopfenbeck & Stobart, 2015; DeLuca, Klinger, Pyper & Woods, 2015; Ratman-Liu & Tan, 2015), the field seems to lack a widely accepted terminology and theoretical framework for AfL (Dunn & Mulvenon, 2011; Black, 2015). This can result in difficulties in designing studies which can provide empirical evidence for the impact that implementation of AfL may have on learning (Bennett, 2011). Arguably, such situation can also impact on how teachers understand AfL. Research in the field of teacher cognition suggests that teachers' knowledge and beliefs can have impact on their classroom practice (e.g. Borg, 2003). Therefore, it seems important to investigate what teachers understand as AfL.
Gattullo, 2000
A study of the use of AfL in TEYL classrooms was reported by Gattullo (2000). The participants comprised 70 learners aged 8-10 and four teachers in a primary school in Italy. Gattullo (ibid.) collected data from 15 hours of audio recorded lessons. She reported nine categories of assessment features that were used in TEYL classrooms: questioning/eliciting, correcting, judging, rewarding, observing process, examining product, clarifying task criteria and metacognitive questioning. Her findings suggest that the teachers were willing to try implementing AfL and were enthusiastic about doing so. These findings indicate that it was possible to implement AfL techniques with TEYL classes despite the learners’ low levels of language proficiency and their young age. However, it should also be noted that the teachers in Gattullo’s (ibid.) study tended to use techniques such as questioning and correcting significantly more frequently than techniques which the author considered more beneficial for learning such as ‘observing process’ or ‘metacognitive questioning’. She indicated that the techniques favoured by the teachers were more naturally compatible with the teaching methodology used. She suggested that it may be important for AfL practices to be compatible with the teaching methodology. This supports Black and Wiliam’s (2009) proposal that gaining insights into context-specific understanding is important.

Wiliam and Black, 2009
Black and Wiliam (2009) propose a theoretical framework that incorporates five aspects of AfL. Within each stage, Black and Wiliam (ibid.) consider the roles and responsibilities of the participants in assessment procedures (teachers, peers and learners). Aspect 1 has teacher-led and learner-led components. In enacting the first aspect of AfL, the teachers clarify the learning objectives and criteria for success while their students can enact this aspect by understanding them. These students can also share their understanding with their peers. Hence, it seems that Aspect 1 encompasses different actions that are intended to ensure that all participants of the teaching and learning process understand what is being taught. This aspect seems to be an integral part of the teaching and learning that occurs in classes. That is to say, learning objectives can be shared and, hopefully, understood within the context of a task, a lesson or perhaps a longer unit of work. Hence, the implementation of this aspect might be sensitive to the educational context in which it is enacted. This is an important feature as it indicates that there is value in considering the practical implementation of the framework in different subject domains, a view shared by Black and Wiliam (ibid.), who point out that ‘what counts as a good explanation in the mathematics classroom would be different from what counts as a good explanation in the history classroom, although they would also share certain commonalities’ (p.27). Aspects 2 and 3 are related to teacher-led actions. In order to fulfil the overall aim of moving learning forward, teachers implement various strategies that provide evidence of where learners are in reference to the learning intentions and criteria for success clarified through Aspect 1. Aspect 3 seems to naturally follow Aspect 2 as it includes strategies that teachers can implement to guide learning and that are informed by the information collected through Aspect 2. Aspects 4 and 5 are learner-led. Aspect 4 considers peers as important agents in the assessment process while Aspect 5 points to learners’ agency in assessing their own learning. This agency can be enacted, for example, by conducting peer- or self- assessment. However, Black and Wiliam (ibid.) do not explore that area in detail. Therefore, how learners could establish where they or their peers are in relation to the learning objectives and how that might differ from guiding themselves or their peers towards achieving the objectives remains open to interpretation. Despite that, Aspects 4 and 5 do provide the useful proposition that learners can have a role in monitoring and guiding their own and/or their peers’ learning. The framework is summarised in Table 1.

Butler and Lee, 2006, 2010
Two studies (Butler & Lee, 2006, 2010) focus on exploring self-assessment, an integral part of AfL, in TEYL contexts in South Korea. The 2006 study examined the validity of on-task and off-task self-assessment with 9-12 year olds. The results of the summative tests and teacher assessment were compared with results of the learners’ self-assessment. Butler and Lee (2006) concluded that on-task self-assessments, where self-evaluation takes place immediately after a learner has completed a task, are more accurate than off-task self-assessments that are unrelated to a specific task and are less influenced by contextual and individual factors. It was found that older learners (11-12 years old) were able to self-assess more accurately than their younger counterparts (9-10) and that all the children could develop accuracy in their self-assessments over time. This study is especially informative because Butler and Lee (ibid.) discussed self-assessment with a temporal reference to completing classroom tasks. Most importantly, it emphasised the importance of integrating self-assessment with teaching and learning: i.e. through on-task self-assessment. Subsequently, Butler and Lee (2010) reported an intervention study with 254 learners aged 11-12. The aims were to investigate whether learners develop accuracy in self-assessment over time and the effectiveness of self-assessment in supporting learning. A series of self-assessment tasks were administered every two weeks over five months. Data were collected from a pre-test, a post-test, a student survey and two teacher interviews. The study provided evidence that the primary age children were able to improve the accuracy of their self-assessments over a relatively short period of time. This suggests that children could be trained in how to self-assess. Importantly for the focus of this paper, Butler and Lee (ibid.) observed that the implementation of self-assessment in both schools differed. In one school the focus was on the role of self-assessment in increasing positive feelings, while in the other it was on increasing achievement. They concluded that the differences in how AfL was perceived and implemented were influenced by teacher beliefs. Hence, providing evidence for the importance of understanding teachers’ beliefs and understanding in researching AfL. The study also revealed that teachers found it challenging to provide feedback to the children because they were concerned that it might increase the already high levels of competitiveness between learners. Therefore, indicating that contextual considerations, such a competitive school culture, could be a factor in implementing AfL.

AfL is understood to be 'part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance on-going learning' (Klenowski, 2009, p. 2). Swaffield (2011) interprets AfL as a form of assessment that has an immediate impact on pupils’ learning. The more deferred the impact and/or the further from the pupil it is, the less for-learning the assessment becomes.

It is also important to note that despite the claims for its potential to facilitate learning (Wiliam, 2009), the use and impact of AfL is largely under researched in the field of Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL). Gaining insights into teachers' understanding of AfL in TEYL contexts seems to be a pre-requisite to investigating the use of AfL and the impact that it may have on learning.
Clarke (2005) describes a number of practical techniques which are used in mainstream English-medium schools and which enable teachers to implement AfL in elementary classrooms. These include: separating the learning objectives from the context of learning, using criteria for success, effective questioning and focusing feedback on the learning objectives or criteria for success. All these techniques can be presented visually, e.g. with the use of pictures of simple diagrams that illustrate for children what the expectations of their performance in each lesson are and/or to what extent they have been met. Some examples of practical implementation could include using an analogy to traffic lights, by indicating with a colour (red, amber or green) to what extend a child has met their learning goal. Another example would be using Success Criteria in the form of a list of items that should be demonstrated by a child while they are completing the task in hand and pointing them out to the child while they work, thus prompting them to monitor their own performance. Peer-assessment could be facilitated by organising children in pairs to form Learning Partners, and providing opportunities for the partners to monitor and evaluate one another’s learning. Also, teachers could ask questions that guide learning and stimulate thinking as opposed to testing questions with right or wrong answers predefined by the teacher.
Studies on AfL in TEYL contexts
As evident from the literature review presented in this paper, although a generic theoretical framework for AfL has been proposed, studies on AfL in TEYL contexts have not explored if teachers' understanding of AfL is aligned with that generic framework.
Research Questions
Lee and Coniam, 2013
Lee and Coniam (2013) collected data through questionnaires, interviews, pre- and post-tests, and lesson observations to investigate how AfL could be implemented in TEYL writing lessons with 12 year olds in a secondary school in Hong Kong. They also analysed factors that facilitated or inhibited such implementation. The findings suggest that teachers’ knowledge and previous experience of using AfL and collaboration between teachers could facilitate the implementation of AfL. Furthermore, two factors were found to inhibit the implementation of AfL; the need to prepare students for external exams and the school’s policy of correcting all errors. The authors suggest that students might have ignored formative feedback when presented with summative assessment results. Regarding the development of writing, despite Lee and Coniam’s (ibid.) claims that AfL contributes to improving the quality of students’ writing, there seem to be no empirical data in their study that linked the increased level of writing with AfL. Most importantly, no control group was included and comparisons were made between the progress made by the students in the study (which was set within a Band 1 school, where Band 1 denotes the best achieving schools in the country) and the national average. Nevertheless, the study offers valuable insights into factors that may facilitate or inhibit the implementation of AfL in a foreign language classroom. With reference to the focus of the current paper, it proposes that teachers knowledge of AfL can be an important factor in how AfL is implemented and whether it could facilitate learning.

The outcomes of the review of the selected literature on AfL indicate that teachers' understanding of AfL is an important factor in how AfL is implemented in TEYL classrooms (Butler & Lee, 2006, 2010; Gattullo, 2000; Lee & Coniam, 2013 ). Hence it seems important to investigate TEYL teachers' understanding of AfL specific to teaching English to Young Learners. Therefore, this paper focuses on the following research question:

1. What are the similarities between the Black and Wiliam (2009) and teachers' understanding of AfL in a TEYL context?
2. What are the differences between the Black and Wiliam (2009) and teachers' understanding of AfL in a TEYL context?

It seems especially valuable to examine whether the findings of the current study confirm that the aspects of AfL proposed by Black and Wiliam (ibid.) can be identified in a TEYL context and whether any differences exist. Such a comparison may offer insights into generic characteristics of AfL and those which are specific to a TEYL context.
The participants of the current study included eight TEYL teachers who worked with learners aged 7-11. The data were collected through semi structured, individual interviews. This choice was similar to other studies which have investigated teachers’ beliefs about self- and peer-assessment or teachers’ interpretations of the effectiveness of assessment (Butler & Lee, 2010) and the implementation of AfL (Lee & Coniam, 2013).

The interviews were transcribed and content analysed to identify recurrent themes. This choice was justified by D’Andrade’s (1991) claim that, when interviewed about a topic, ‘frequently people circle through the same network of ideas’ (p. 287) and by Ryan and Bernard’s (2003) claims that ‘themes are only visible (and thus discoverable) through the manifestation of expressions in data’ (p. 86).
Table 2 suggests that there are many similarities between the Black and Wiliam (2009) framework and the understanding of AfL reported by the teachers in the current study.

The similarities between the teacher-led aspects of AfL in the findings of the current study and the Black and Wiliam (ibid.) framework, discussed above, provide interesting insights when considering other research. The theme corresponding to Aspect 1 in Table 2 was very frequently expressed in the interview data. This might suggest that it is an important feature of AfL in an TEYL context. It seems plausible to infer that the use of AfL helped the teachers achieve Aspect 1 when setting up lessons and tasks by providing a familiar structure to those stages of the lessons. This interpretation is reflected in the data. For example, T7 commented that ‘within the lesson it [AfL] provides a really good structure of how things are organised and I think the students have benefitted from that’. This is an interesting insight into the use of AfL, especially when compared with the findings of the research that suggests that foreign language learning in childhood may benefit from using familiar task types as this may facilitate collaboration in completing the task (Pinter, 2007). Research about adult contexts suggests that tasks with more structure can facilitate different aspects of linguistic output, including complexity (Bygate, 1996) or fluency (Skehan & Foster, 1999). As the current study suggests that AfL might contribute to providing a structure for lesson activities, it is plausible to infer that AfL could help learners collaborate to complete a task and perhaps produce better quality output. Future research should investigate this area further.
A number of themes identified in the current study are not represented in the Black and William (2009) framework. First,
'providing structure and focus to teachers’ lesson planning’ seems to be a characteristic of AfL specific to TEYL contexts. The Black and Wiliam (ibid.) framework focuses on the processes that occur during the lessons, while the teachers’ understanding reported in the current study indicates what seems to be a very important characteristic of AfL: that it is planned and hence, presumably, used purposefully.

Additionally, Theme 4c indicates that the teachers participating in the study considered AfL to be a way of evaluating learners’ confidence about their achievement in relation to the learning objective. This is an interesting finding as it could be speculated that, in the cases of learners who indicated low confidence in own achievement, the teachers could implement pedagogical interventions. These would aim to help the learner move their learning forwards in relation to the learning objective, if the learner’s confidence was justifiably low. Alternatively, teachers could highlight the success of a certain learner, thus helping those learners who did achieve their objective despite not feeling confident, to develop confidence. This is especially informative when considered in the context of research which suggests that feelings of success in language learning can be motivating to young learners (e.g. Cable et al. 2010) and thus could contribute to learners developing positive self-concept, which may be beneficial for learning (e.g. Mihaljević Djigunović & Lopriore, 2011).

The findings of the current study indicate that TEYL teachers' understanding of AfL is largely aligned with the framework proposed by Wiliam and Balck (2009). This was especially evident in the large number of themes which corresponded with the teacher-led aspects of the Wiliam and Black (ibid.) framework. This is a usuful fing as it suggests that teh Wiliam and Black (ibid.) framework could be used to design studies into implementation of AfL and the impact of such implementation on learning.

Interesting findings were also provided by exploring the TEYL specific aspects of AfL. There were related to the need for purposeful implementaion of the framework and indicated possible ways in which AfL could facilitate learning in TEYL classrooms, viz. by providing scaffolding and fostering development of positive affective profiles.

Both of the above areas would constitude interesting foci for future research on AfL. It would be valuable to analyse how teachers implement AfL in their lessons with children, especially paying attention to the purposes for which teachers plan to use AfL. Secondly, it may be informative to analyse the impact that AfL could have on performance by providing structure within tasks. Finally, it would be interesting to investigate if implementing AfL can help to foster positive affective dispositions by helping young learners develop positive self-concept.
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Table 1: Aspects of AfL, adapted from Black and Wiliam (2009, p. 8)
Table 2: Teachers' understanding of AfL mapped out against the Black and Wiliam (2009) framework
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