Assessing writing skills

Once the testing window arrives, there is nothing else we can do but reassure our students that they are ready and they can do this. If students are feeling particularly nervous, try having them write a confidence statement, such as “I’m going to rock this test!” or “This test is going to be a piece of cake!” Even if it seems corny, this positive selftalk can really help your middle schoolers feel good going into the testing situation (Wolpert-Gawron 2017).

Writing skills test

Preparing for high-stakes tests is necessary, but it can also be ineffective if not done in a way that works best for your students. Our purpose this month is to provide you with the tools you need to effectively prepare your students for standardized testing.

We should be prepping our students for high-stakes testing through our daily curriculum—not by bombarding them with practice test after practice test a month before the testing date. In our minds, test prep is about organically teaching students comprehension, self-monitoring, and problem-solving strategies through engaging instructional activities. This way, they can more successfully navigate the test with stamina, engagement, and confidence. These are not things that you can develop within your students in a month—it is a year-long effort.

The aims of the teaching programme

All assessment starts (or should start) from a consideration of the aims of instruction.
For example, if the (or one) aim of a language course is to enable the learners to do well in an IELTS academic writing examination then this will be very influential in terms of the types of assessment tasks we use and the way in which we measure performance. The backwash (or washback, if you prefer) from the examination format will almost inevitably have to be reflected in the task types we set.
If, on the other hand, our aim is to enable the learners to operate successfully in a work environment then we will set different kinds of assessment tasks and measure performance against different criteria. In this case, a priority will be to measure how accurately and with how much communicative success the learners can handle the specific register and functions required by their work context.
Finally, if we are aiming at enabling our learners to function adequately in an English-speaking environment (perhaps as an immigrant or temporary resident), then this, too, will fundamentally affect the tasks we set and the benchmarks against which we measure success. Here, for example, we might be dealing with form filling, work getting and accessing services.

These three factors are to do with ensuring reliability and validity. For more on those two concepts, see the guide to testing, assessment and evaluation. The rest of this guide assumes basic familiarity with the content of that guide.
Fulfilling all three criteria adequately requires a little care.

Getting the full picture

The first step is to set out exactly what writing skills are the objects of the teaching programme. To do this, we have to answer these 4 questions (which come with a few examples of the kinds of answers we might get):

  1. What sorts of texts will our learners need to be able to produce? I.e., in which genre(s) will they need to function?
    • Emails / letters (formal or informal, interactional or transactional)?
    • Blogs?
    • Notes?
    • Form filling?
    • Announcements?
    • Advertisements?
    • Narratives?
    • Academic essays? In which subject areas?
    • Descriptions?
  2. What are the purposes of the learners’ writing?
    • For basic communication with colleagues?
    • For academic purposes?
    • For social purposes in an English-speaking setting?
    • For informal or formal interpersonal communication?
  3. What functions do the learners need to be able to perform?
    • Expressing needs?
    • Stating opinion?
    • Apologising?
    • Providing information?
    • Eliciting information?
    • Sequencing events?
    • Commenting on opinions?
  4. What topics will our learners have to be familiar with?
    • Social matters?
    • Dealing with officialdom?
    • Service providers?
    • Entertainment and leisure?
    • Travel arrangements?
    • The media?
    • Personal anecdotes?
    • Medical matters?
    • Specific study subjects?
    • Specific occupational areas?


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