Challenges in Assessing Learners’ Written Skills in Nepal
– Eak Prasad Duwadi
Being a non-native English as Foreign Language teacher, I have faced innumerable challenges in assessing my learners’ written skills. Out of those, learners’ disliking writing tasks is the most common one. I have seen more than a half of a class often has blank syndromes (causes temporary speechless). Moreover, there are many EFL practitioners and teachers who give marks according to the faces rather than the texts their students have produced. I think we need some remedies to correct these challenges. Hence, if the teachers are committed and well-trained, many of these difficulties will be addressed.
Some students (mainly from elite and foreign institutions) can answer some questions based on their previous knowledge of extensive reading and exposures, but the capability of students who come from the schools of rural areas where even medium of instruction of English is not English is quite low. Consequently, what they are able to produce is sentences with wrong spellings, structures and coherence. The courses that I have to teach mainly include the development of macro skills. In assessment tests, they are asked to write reports, proposals, formal letters and academic articles though it is almost impossible to fulfill in a single semester. Another challenge is that most of teachers do not use analytical rubrics: in my university, for example, there are staffs in controller’s office who has pure sciences background.
I have gained many insights on assessment in this session. Agreeing with Linville (2011), I prefer analytical scoring to either holistic or primary trait scoring. It perhaps is more valid as learners’ performance is not only assessed by a particular aspect but also be evaluated with integrated aspects. I have also learnt from Cohen (1994) who presents a series of reading assessing strategies, their advantages as well as drawbacks says that reading involves a series of abilities: language proficiency, attitudes, motivation and background knowledge amongst others.
Therefore, reading is the must for writing activity too. Be it course books, or reference materials, if learners read it, then only they can reflect or create something new. It is up to us to start trying some or a combination of them in order to find the most suitable for our students and for teachers too. Reading relevant literatures about writing and taking part in the discussion, I have made several assumptions.
First, my foremost duty is to promote students’ achievement in writing. I often do this by carefully designing rubrics, giving clear instructions, monitoring students’ writing to appraise strengths and weaknesses, teaching specific skills and strategies in response to student needs, and giving careful way forward that, I believe, will underpin newly learned skills.
Second, my liability is to provide opportunities for writing and encourage the students who attempt to write. In my own experiences, that is possible only when I also do writing with them instead of just asking them to do so.
Third, I ought to evaluate the writing products according to fluency, contents, conventions, syntax, and vocabulary. Now I believe that designing assessments that confirm to all the five basic principles of assessment (practicality, reliability, validity, authenticity and washback) is no longer an impossible thing for me.
Fourth, before designing writing examination, I should think about what and why to assess although both are very tough questions. For writing, I also ought to select items according to my learners’ needs, levels and objectives of the assessment.
Fifth, because “Each genre of written text has its own set of governing rules and conventions” (Brown & Abeywickrama, 2010, p.225), I should assess not more than one or two variables at a time since assessing too many variables together may violet the principles of assessment by focusing on either micro or macro skills for that moment.
Sixth, I should shun non-relevant amendments but allow to peers’ correction i.e. correcting the mistakes all by students themselves to convey positive backwash. I ought to provide positive feedback rather than merely giving them grades to improve and motivate energetically.
Other trainee friends also have expressed similar challenges that I mentioned in the beginning, whilst communicating online. I, of course, would like to share some ideas that will help them take new directions so as to assess their learners’ writing.
Assigning them varieties of tasks as Brown (2004) has suggested like imitative, intensive (controlled), responsive (connecting sentences into paragraph), extensive (implies all processes and strategies of writing) and adopting “analytical scoring, we have to facilitate them rather than dictating or dominating. As the axiom goes “like teacher like students”, we teachers have to be role models, first of all. Next thing is that they need to have wider exposures of reading, writing, traveling, etc. Moreover, we must love them unconditionally.
When we involve ourselves with them in writing, we indirectly provide the learners extrinsic motivation and engorgement. Later we first can read out our own, and ask them to comment on it. Gradually, even the shy ones turn up enthusiastically. Ultimately, teachers will be able to shun the situations shown in the beginning of unit 5: Assessing Reading and Writing page.
In Nepal writing is the skill which we (teachers) assess mostly. I think what we must remember is: Why are we assessing? and what are we assessing? I here agree with Brown (2004) while considering about students’ writing ability, we need to be clear about, “What is you want to test: handwriting ability? correct spelling? writing sentences that are grammatically correct? paragraph construction? logical development of main idea? All of these, and more are possible objectives” (p. 218). Writing, therefore, is not only a peculiar element. Actually, it is an integrated form of many other aspects.
Brown, H.D. (2004). Assessing writing. In Language assessment: principles and classroom practices. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Brown, H.D. and Abeywickrama, P. (2010). Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.
Cohen, A. (1994). Assessing reading comprehension. In Assessing language ability in the classroom. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
Linville, H. (2011). Assessing Reading and Writing. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://blackboard.umbc.edu