• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 1999
I have worked in the area of language assessment for many years, primarily teaching university graduate students who are teachers of English language learners in public schools. I have always found language assessment to be stimulating as an academic subject. But it is challenging to teach due to the gap between linguistic theory and its application in the classroom, which requires making decisions about language-minority students’ learning. Also, most texts do not address instructional language assessment for language-minority students. Texts are generally long on theory and short on examples of classroom assessment.
Last semester I used a CD-ROM, Instructional Language Assessment by Dr. Sandra Fradd of the University of Florida, that breathed new life into the course. It allowed me to re-conceptualize how to include a practicum in a course where most students are teachers who study at night and teach during the day. The students enjoyed using the CD-ROM because it provided a novel way to cover content and have it illustrated.
Instructional Language Assessment is multifaceted and makes instructional language assessment “come alive” with video and audio clips of English language learners using English in the classroom. The CD-ROM can be used with Macintosh and Windows and is authored by HyperStudio. It is comprised of 14 “stacks” (equivalent to 14 book chapters) and includes a manual in PFD format that can be accessed by Adobe Acrobat Reader software.
The self-paced design of the CD-ROM makes it an appropriate review for those with experience in the area as well as those just beginning the study of language assessment. The user can click on highlighted vocabulary items to review their definitions or choose to skip them. Even those using the CD-ROM for review will enjoy viewing the video clips of students that are presented as examples of proficiency level designations. While the clips are short, they do an excellent job of illustrating their point.
The first six chapters cover basic concepts related to bilingual language assessment. The approach emphasizes collecting varying types of information about how students communicate in meaningful situations in a variety of contexts. The assessment process is based on assessing general language proficiency as well as narrative and expository skills in oral and written discourse.
The fifth stack presents a case study of a student who is described (as well as seen and heard). The case study emphasizes the importance of forming a hypothesis about what is known about the student prior to assessment and determining a plan of action for collecting additional information through observation of the student in multiple contexts and through collaboration with others in the school who work with the student.
Stacks seven through 14 deal with assessment in its applied context. These chapters provide a step-by-step explanation of how to conduct an assessment from the initial stage of eliciting oral language, to analysis and interpretation of data through guidelines for writing a summary report. I found this section to be the CD-ROM’s most valuable feature. The types of suggestions offered here generally are not found in texts. They are only gained through extensive experience in collecting and analyzing students’ language in classrooms. These materials were developed primarily through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and were field tested and reviewed by groups of teachers, language assessment specialists and researchers for a period of five years.
Another strong point of Instructional Language Assessment is that assessment results always should be tied to instruction. The author focuses on levels of narrative development and functional language ability within the language proficiency rubric as well as presenting a continuum of developmental language proficiency levels side by side with a list of key instructional features that correspond to each proficiency level rating. My students found the juxtaposition of developmental levels and corresponding key instructional features useful in designing tasks for collecting language samples and for making recommendations for subsequent instruction. Even very experienced bilingual teachers commented on the usefulness of having connections made between proficiency levels and instructional activities.
The manual that accompanies the CD-ROM is also very useful. The rationale for the material in each chapter is presented along with content notes that require students to supply relevant information or apply the material in some way after viewing the stack. It also contains examples of students’ writing, transcripts of oral proficiency samples and useful rubrics to evaluate students through observation or evaluation of written samples.
Instructional Language Assessment is a valuable resource and has the potential to provide a unifying frame for assessment that can be used to plan instruction and make appropriate decisions regarding the education of English language learners. For that reason, it is a valuable resource for classroom teachers of language-minority students as well as speech-language pathologists and school psychologists.
I recommend Instructional Language Assessment most highly and look forward to using it again in my classes. I feel it has the potential to vastly improve the assessment and instruction of English language learners.
Dr. Pam McCollum is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]