Tests for Teachers : what to assess and how? Some random thoughts

As English teachers, one constant concern we have is about: 
  • whether our learners are writing as much as they should be writing,
  • and then, whether they are in fact writing in literate English,
  • and finally,  whether they follow all the writing conventions and know how to write for the effect they want to create.

(That is essentially one sentence stating one problem with three aspects of it in it; I bullet-ed them to make them all visible).

The content as prescribed (as opposed to “designed” which actually leaves teachers plenty of room to play around with content and teaching methods)  by the ICSE or CBSE Board, for English studies, focuses primarily on grammar and composition “topics” students need to “study” in Paper I, and the set pieces they need to read in Paper II Literature.

There is no clear indication for teachers about what the teachers ought to know or teach before they can take up a “grammar or composition topic”.

A lesson on “Voice” for example, is usually taught as a stand-alone lesson on that topic. On day 1 the teacher will tell the students and show them what Active Voice verbs and Passive verbs look like, and how they are changed from one form to the other. On day 2 they would be working with sentences;  and then the teacher would check it off on her planner, as “Chapter on Voice – Completed” . No further interventions will be done except perhaps some more drills (transformation of sentences from Active to Passive and Passive to  Active Voice).

The teacher is not required to stop and think about why it is important to teach passives, how it helps the student to read or write better and exactly in what ways writers can use it to create the effect they desire to create.

Some place somewhere a teacher will saunter into her class armed with her rather limited subject knowledge, having studied grammar for the last time in life in Class VII or VIII when he or she was barely sixteen years of age, hardly mature enough to grasp the finer nuances of a verb in the passive voice. At least in India, they do not teach you a great many things about verbs in the Passive Voice in Class VII (when they are introduced) or in Clas VIII (where it is taught as a lesson for the last time before a student transitions into Class IX, whereon there would simply be drills in the form of ‘transformation of sentences’).

In one school I went to, to conduct a workshop for teachers, I discovered the Science teacher was assigned to teach English in Class 2. Not having studied English as a discipline, it did not occur to her that she needed to know more about passives than just how it looks and how a verb can be changed to passive voice.

In another school, the Grade 8 teacher thoughtfully gave each child a “5 point to do” checklist before students attempted to write a summary. However, in the last point, the first line was “…use only complex sentences”. Usually, we tell them NOT to use Complex sentences (as they contain many finite verbs, hence multiple clauses) but to adhere to Simple sentences (one finite verb) while writing a Summary. Obviously this teacher was confused and probably forgot which one was which. Am sure in his mind he knew what it is he wanted but sometimes because we are not thorough, the terms get mixed up in our heads.

We remember only what is truly relevant in our lives. What we cannot use or understand the importance of, we usually forget. Young students are no different.

In our B.Ed or teacher training programs, the tests currently only audit the amount of facts a trainee teacher can remember or whether they “can write a summary”.

In the light of the knowledge I have picked up teaching over the years, through trial and error, I think if we could have a test like this, using the “exam” tool to guide the teachers to think about,

“The Assumptions about Language as a Tool and Expectations of a Language Lesson”

that might help. It certainly would have helped me when I was twenty years old.

A COHORT session in my old school Riverside led me to think; at the end of a few hours of contemplation, this is the questionnaire I came up with, that teachers from other disciplines (especially) could use, to be conscious about the relevance of grammar lessons we plan. The questionnaire ought to help a teacher understand “why I have to know this” , “how will it help me write the way I want to”.

1) Try and list two ways in which knowledge about the names of parts of speech and their functions can help students decode unknown texts?

2) What “grammar” chapters should I teach before I can introduce a descriptive writing exercise to my class?

3) Can you cite examples from literature you studied where you saw evidence of how important a tiny little Preposition word can be and how a preposition can become a matter of life and death in a court case?

4) To write we need tools, one such ‘tool’ (resource or background info if you please) is of course knowledge of structural grammar. So to empower your students to write strong Argumentative essays, what language lessons should you include in your pre-writing sessions?

5) What kind of reading and writing can you plan for after you have taught your class about passives?

6) What do my students struggle with the most? What is one of the recurrent problems in writing I have noticed with every batch I have taught over the past two years? (Awareness)

7) To write a good summary, should my children have to be thorough with composing Simple sentences or Complex sentences?

8) Can I enhance the understanding and appreciation of poetry reading by including grammar lessons in my sessions? If yes, then what chapters should those grammar lessons be from?

9) What all do our children need to know to become good at spelling?

10) Which kind of grammar errors affect the meaning of sentences or utterances?

11) Is it possible to change the structure of sentences without changing the meaning of it?

12) Should you write an intro and conclusion for a summary?

You might ask, what if a teacher does not know the answers to any of these questions? How does the test help us then?

If a teacher finds that she or he cannot answer some of these questions, that might lead them to research these things. In their minds now they would know WHY they are planning a lesson on Verbs,  HOW could learners be made to see that it makes sense to know about “them stupid things called verbs”.

The whole point of a test is to make me aware of what I do NOT know and need to learn, before I plan my next lesson. It also helps me to decide how I should go about ‘correcting’ their written assignments, what I should look for,  rather than just checking off what they did “right/wrong”, give them useful feedback.

I love to hear from my blog visitors and usually reply to everyone that takes the time to interact with me. Thank you for reading my blog.

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