Assessment: An Opportunity to Learn

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* Article first published in FORTELL September 2011 issue.

Purpose and relevance of assessment

As we all know, tests have become an accepted component of formal instructional programmes throughout the world. They are considered valid, reliable indicators of students’ performance and potential and are being used increasingly to make decisions about the quality of a particular programme/course, admission to various courses and selection for jobs. Sometimes tests are justified on the basis of accountability: are students learning what they are supposed to be learning? This kind of evidence is required to make judgments about how to spend resources, whether to continue with a particular course/ textbook etc. Tests also provide an opportunity to give feedback to language students for future improvement.

Hence it is important to deliberate upon whether our language tests help us to draw inferences about the language abilities of our students that are reliable and a true indicator of their proficiency and consequently help us to make correct decisions based on those inferences? What does a particular score tell us about that student’s language ability or about classroom teaching? Do scores and grades shed light on the kind of errors our students make, provide reasons for those errors along with solutions? Do they help curriculum developers to revise textbooks or help teachers to modify their teaching practices?

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Keeping ‘Reading Habit Alive’

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* Article first published in Fortell, May 2011 issue.

For those who are avid readers, reading perhaps is the most interesting and pleasurable activity but the present day youth would perhaps defer. They have a plethora of interesting things to keep them engaged, where do they have the time to waste on the printed word found on paper! For these young people there is the electronic media- the TV with such a wide variety of programmes being aired 24*7, the computer abounding with websites. And so we all agree, all but the community of teachers, specially the language teachers.

Everyone who is connected to the teaching fraternity would agree whole-heartedly that reading is an important aspect of the process of acquiring knowledge. And thus the job of language teacher gets even more challenging. It is not to make the learner comfortable in using the language; it is to give the learner the ability to read with interest, to read with speed, to read with comprehension. This, according to me, is because of two major issues: first, one needs to read to gain knowledge of any subject and second; leisure reading is the most beautiful way to relax.

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Learner Autonomy through ICT in an English Language Curriculum

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Learner Autonomy is basically independence in language learning, which includes willingness for (language) learning on one’s own. Autonomy is defined as:

…the freedom and ability to manage one’s own affairs, which entails the right to make decisions as well. Responsibility may also be understood as being in charge of something, but with the implication that one has to deal with the consequences of one’s own actions. Autonomy and responsibility both require active involvement, and they are apparently very much interrelated. (Scharle & Szabo, 4)

The underlying assumption is that autonomous learners are more likely to succeed than are learners who are passively reliant on their teachers or textbooks to set the destinations and routes in language learning. Hence it is important for language teachers to ‘know’ the learner before attempting to teach them. Learners like to get information in different ways and these different ways are called perceptual styles. A person who receives new information in his/her favorite style will learn better, understand better and remember better. Knowing about perceptual styles will help us understand when we a study/teach and when we organize meetings or give presentations. There are four perceptual styles:

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Making Evaluation Authentic

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* Article first published in Fortell, September 2011 issue.


Thirty-two years of teaching English tells me that one of the only ways of making testing interesting and relevant is by making it an authentic activity and an integral part of the students’ learning programme. This is especially important for teaching and testing at the under-graduate level. Students at this stage have already had twelve years taking formal testing and most have mastered the art of cracking and passing exams without necessarily learning anything valuable or significant. They are oriented to the system well enough to know that memorizing from guidebooks or kunjis is a sure route to success while for the reckless or the adventurous, cheating from slips of papers tucked away into shoes or blouses or attempting to send in proxy candidates are attemptable options. It is against this mindless taking of tests and examinations that I see value in what I wish to share.

The University of Delhi has thankfully made space for Internal Assessment from 2007 with 15 marks being allotted for Project/Seminar, etc. and 5 marks for Assignment (besides 10 marks for Home Exams and 5 marks for Attendance). It is in the space available for Projects and Assignments that I experiment with interactive, learning-oriented evaluation procedures.

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A Neglected Area of Language Teaching

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* First published in FORTELL, May 2011 issue.

Till the 1970s or even 1980s perhaps, teaching idioms and proverbs was an essential part of language teaching. No doubt, it was done in a rather boring and mechanical way and one had to just memorize idiomatic sentences often without really understanding the meaning of the idiom or proverb being used. Then, with the popularity of direct method and more recently of communicative method and computer-assisted language learning, the teaching of idioms and proverbs went out of fashion. This is not a plea to go back to the old method of teaching such expressions.

However, one must realise that the language used in a substantial part of our day today, is actually formulaic. If you analyze any piece of conversation or a written text, say a story by Prem Chand or Ruskin Bond, you will soon realise that a substantial part of the text is socio-culturally rooted and frozen in idioms, proverbs and such formulaic expressions as greetings, opening and closing turns in conversation etc. The problem with such frozen expressions is that they constitute a list that has to be consciously learnt as opposed to the rest of language which is generative in character and where if you have internalised one set of rules you can produce an infinite number of sentences. Again, the meaning of such idioms and proverbs is NOT compositional in character i.e. there is no way you can even remotely tell the meaning of the whole from the meaning of the parts.

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