Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What am I Doing in this Level?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

“Okay, get into groups of 4 and we are going to play a game.” For many students, this is a cue to relax and have some fun in a language class. For me, though, when I hear these words in my French class, I actually become nervous and ashamed. I really like playing review games (there is a great deal of brain research that suggests when people are engaged and excited, they are actually learning more easily) and I appreciate that my teacher is so creative and enthusiastic about language learning.

The problem doesn’t lie in the game. Rather, I am averse to participating actively in the class because I am in the wrong level.

Being in the wrong level class can be really demoralizing. In my situation, the class I am in this semester is simply too hard for me. For the first time in 2 years, I have actually had second thoughts about whether attending the class at all would be beneficial. I like my teacher, and I enjoy the other students; I am just so frustrated with my own ability, forcing myself to go to class is a chore. When I actually make it to the class, I am too embarrassed to ask a lot of questions, in case it is something the other students already know.

Ironically, the students who need to ask the most questions might be the last ones to ask them. When I was more confident in my French level, I asked all sorts of questions. Now, I rarely raise my hand. As I described, the threat of anything interactive causes me terror. I don’t want to be THAT student, the one no one wants to work with because she doesn’t know what’s going on. I can only imagine that being in a class that is too easy would be frustrating for other reasons; it would be boring and wearisome to be constantly re-learning things and I would always be thinking the activities were a waste of time and the lessons were a waste of money.

How Did this Happen?

This happens so easily to so many students for a variety of reasons, many of them administrative. There may not be enough students to allow for a class at that particular level, so the students are deposited into classes above or below their abilities. Similarly, sometimes classes are filled at a particular level, so students are placed into classes which may not be the best fit. In these cases, teachers may not have any control over where these students wind up. In many cases, the adjusted placement may work out just fine for everyone, but in some instances, the student and the teacher are left frustrated.

A Case for Pre- and Post-Testing

In my case, I was given a placement test when I first arrived at my French school 2 years ago. Since then, I have not been given a single test. I have passed up to the next level with all of my peers simply because we were finished with a particular part of the text. But, covering a lesson in the class certainly does not ensure that all students have mastered, or even understood, that particular skill. Factors such as student attendance, motivation, aptitude, and even age have been proven to impact how adeptly people learn a language. Therefore, pre- and post-testing for a class is, in my opinion, essential. Teachers might have a notion of which of their students are ready to pass on to the next level, but what one teacher believes is level-appropriate French may not be for another teacher. Therefore, an institute wide system of testing is advisable.

Pre- and post- testing doesn’t have to be a huge chore. It can be as simple as copying a test from the Teachers’ Resource Guide. Obviously, a system of pre- and post-testing that is specially developed for a specific institute works best, but that might not be practical for all schools. Ideally a subject specific assessment should be administered, as well. For instance, if the student is primed to move to the next level in a Speaking course, he or she should take an oral post-test. Finally, of course no test should be administered so rigidly that a strong student who has a bad day is stuck back in the same level as before. Teachers should be able to weigh in on their students’ abilities, as well. The key is that some form of formal assessment takes place every semester to ensure that the students who are in a particular class will thrive there.


Comment from LQ
January 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Great post! Also a wonderful demonstration of why language teachers MUST be language learners.

When I went to grad school the first time, I was placed into an advanced Chinese class. The test weighted the written portion over the recorded speaking/listening portion, and I’m a good guesser! I’ve noticed a similar pattern in US community colleges. The tests (usually all written) seem to have been created with Spanish speakers in mind, so when East Asian students with relatively strong grammar-test skills take the tests, they get put into classes that are too advanced for their listening and speaking skills.

The first day, I didn’t understand a single word (the entire class was in Chinese). I was terrified, and also embarrassed–it was an elite grad school and I wasn’t even sure I belonged there. I was too insecure to talk to the professor or ask my advisor if I could be put in a lower level. I just dropped the class and didn’t take any Chinese during my time there, which was a serious mistake. However, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Post-testing, and reaching out to students who look lost, could help a lot.

Comment from Tamara
January 26, 2011 at 2:11 am

My experience with testing has been similar to yours. Students with strong test-taking abilities or strong grammar, reading and writing skills often find themselves placed in classes beyond their ability if a listening and speaking section is also not included in a placement test. Although speaking assessments can take time, they are an essential element when trying to gauge a student’s overall ability.
I think you also hit the nail on the head when you mention that you were too ashamed to talk to the teacher or administrator about being misplaced. We need to remember that not all students are vocal and persistent; some will simply stop attending the class.

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